Farewell, Faulkner

Leaving home creates not merely a sense of nostalgia but a sense of time shifting, warping from its constancy to something more approximating a lurching backward and hurtling forward. As Einstein reminds us, time is less constant nearer the speed of light, so it is perhaps no surprise that in times of intense change the present folds down its wings to encompass past and future in sudden and unexpected moments. In a single instant, one can find the ghosts of other memories mingling and hovering over the present. As I write these words and pack up my office, I simultaneously pack up the past to move my collection of great books and professorial paraphernalia into the future. With each object placed carefully into a box, I hear the echoes of colleagues’ voices when I moved in ten years ago, reverberating with times spent laughing or commiserating in the hallways. My eyes scanning the plush conference chairs, I remember the countless visits with students who sat here as we spent their college tenure trying to untangle the riddles and queries about life. The calls to this place, my work home, were many.

My experience certainly isn’t unique to anyone who has spent a long and meaningful time fulfilling one’s vocation. Such a calling is temporary, just as one’s life is temporary. Some of us are called to work in the same town all of their lives; others are nomads wandering the pasturelands. But even the former are in their own times and seasons only shortly, for all lives are in flux. It is Dante’s Primum Mobile that is constantly moving, powered by the celestial Empyrean and the very thought of God. It is hell that is in stasis.

It is not a trite thing to say that comfort is easy, while motion is hard. Motion demands change, flexibility, adaptation. In the transition, I have felt a deepening affinity with Abraham, who sojourned under the great trees of Mamre, but ever owned only the land he purchased for Sarah’s burial. He never saw the City that would be built after his death. I know the land into which I go, a land I did not expect to sojourn in again. Yet such is the nature of God’s call when one surrenders. I am one who errs on the side of human freedom and free will. But I also believe that when we choose to walk the road of faith we freely relinquish (in part) our control to draft the blueprints entirely to our desires.

In short, we must all leave home at some stage in our journey. As for mine, this next stage will see me moving west to take up the charge of Writing Center Director at California Baptist University. My task will be to help undergraduate and graduate students refine their rhetoric and communication skills, aid faculty design effective writing assignments, and facilitate recruitment and retention efforts for the institution through community outreach. I am excited at the prospects of teaching teachers, helping tutors and professors achieve their maximum potential as they in turn cultivate the maximum potential from their students. This may be the greatest gift of the educator. So, as I seek out milk and honey in the desert, I wish to leave behind a few words to those who have helped shape me.

To my colleagues: Your creativity and scholarship never fails to surprise me, and I am honored to have worked with such thoughtful professors, staff, and administrators. The depth of your learning inspires me to keep learning. Your passion for students has infused me with joy, and you have encouraged me to deepen my own passion and increase my own humanity. I have kept in good humor at the end of the day and at the end of the semester because of you. My spirits were lifted because your spirits never stooped so low. (And especially for those students who grew into colleagues, poetry could not do justice to how proud I am of you.) I have the greatest respect for your hard work, for your commitment to the work I leave behind, for rising each day to lay stones in the City of God. Know, too, that I will still be laboring with you, even if we no longer share in the camaraderie of laboring beside one another.

To my students: You have more in you than you can even yet imagine. Most of you feel disheartened, believing you can’t do it, it’s too hard, or you’re unworthy. But those are self-taught lies that blur the image of God in you. Because of that image, all of us are built with the capacity to learn, to create, to love. One of the joys of the educator is to watch the student take shape and develop those capacities. Through faith, virtue, and education do any of us emerge as a masterpiece beneath the veins of stone. I, too, a fellow work in progress, have tried to teach you truth, goodness, and beauty. I pray I answered your calls with patience and wisdom, planting seeds that will someday bear fruit for you and your children. And I am grateful that, beyond the roles of instructor and pupil, I can now call many of you friend.

To all readers: I will continue to write in my new land, sharing my meagre thoughts about culture, faith, and art, should you wish to read them. That much will not change at least. Some of us will not see each other again this side of paradise, but as Dante sings of heaven, “Nearness is nothing, distance is no thief” (Par. 30.121). So when I am saddened to think of parting ways, I am heartened with a folding forward of the future to think we will spend all of eternity enjoying each other’s fellowship, deepening our friendship, and cultivating the divine image in each of us. That time isn’t so far away. And that thought turns my sadness to joy.

Farewell, Faulkner. Until we meet again on our road toward the City.

The Thrill of Orthodoxy: A Review

It was a book I was eager to read. As a professor of Great Books who earnestly believes in the value of historical Christianity, I expected to find in this argument an exploration of the creeds, a survey and denunciation of the heresies, the various confessional movements, and the dangers of our modern divergence from the faith. Each of these elements were touched upon in Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy (InterVarsity Press, 2022), which successfully reinforced my confidence in that faith. But my experience of reading the book was, sadly, less than thrilling.

The modern Christian—especially the Christian long-churched—struggles to find novelty in ancient words. Growing up going to Sunday School means memorizing not only the old text but the old language. The language that isn’t holy writ but has been repeated so many times that it holds the enchantment of the sacristy in the minds of its parishioners. As in a familiar marriage, it can be difficult to believe passionately in the good of fidelity when temptations are found on every digital street corner.

The problem, Wax rightly discerns, is that we are easily distracted by the world’s allurements while hungering for something spiritually rich. If we cannot find satisfaction in recitations of the creeds, we will find titillation in sensational philosophies and syncretism. Spiritualist cults often offer something more intriguing than orthodox religion. Like the modernist, they blend belief in God with the promise of power, marketing the illusion of social acceptance plus the freedom of individual irresponsibility. To stay within the fence lines, trotting along grasslands well-worn, can bring a banality to a heart seeking what lies in the forest beyond home.

But Christians digging deeper into scripture, listening to the voice of the Spirit, longing for transformation, desiring communion with God will discover new treasures as well as old (Matt. 13:51-52). Those seeking the kingdom of heaven with sincerity and hard effort will find connections between scriptures, depth in theology, and results in practice. What is orthodox is not exciting or adventurous in the way the author describes, but it is stable foundation on which to build a home.

For this reason, I struggled throughout the book to connect with the repetitive characterization of orthodoxy as “an adventure.” This wording, and others like it (“thrill,” “exciting,” etc.) betrays a fear that the subject is anything but. As soon as the professor has to ask if the students are having fun, he knows they are not. This is because, by his own tacit admission, orthodoxy is not fun in the religious sense. It could be pictured as a journey. But it is better described, for what my opinion is worth, as a cathedral, a multi-generational project where believers use their talents to construct a kingdom worthy of the King upon his glorious return. The cathedral is awe-inspiring, working wonder and prompting worship; but it is not sensational like riding a roller coaster or joining a role-playing game.

This problem is not merely rhetorical. Even without the repetitive language, the argument lacks a compelling narrative. To his credit, Wax attempts many of the objectives I would have set for the book. He lays out his definition of orthodoxy, as represented by historical Christianity and the major creeds, distinguishing them from the various confessions of major denominations. He discusses ancient heresies like Donatism and Arianism. He discusses modern heresies like sectarianism and sexual ideology. It does touch on some of the stories of the faith, but all too briefly. It does mention some significant heresies, but not in ways that either contextualize their appearance nor explain their application to contemporary Christianity. More heresies should be reviewed, and more resolutions should be presented, if the reader is going to understand why a biblically based, historically informed Christianity is more meaningful than its ancient and modern divergences.

Far be it from me to cast too dark a pallor on the book. Wax makes many important points that turned my head. He is correct that heresy makes faith narrow-minded while claiming the opposite, and that orthodoxy, on the other hand, is expansive. He is correct that progressives are too inclusive to the point of blurring the definition of faithful obedience, while sectarians are so exclusive as to destroy fellowship with nearly anyone who disagrees with them. He gives thoughtful warnings that “We should be wary of anyone who advocates new teachings or new practices that Christians in other parts of the world would fail to recognize or that church leaders throughout history would find surprising.” When we find ourselves frustrated with church teaching, we should remember that “We are always tempted to challenge the constraints of orthodoxy at the pressure points where we most need those constraints.”

But Wax chooses for his text a popular audience of the unconverted and the disenchanted. I believe, however, his audience is the choir. Few modernist Christians already conforming to today’s sexual ideology would likely pick up the book and change their minds to embrace historical Christianity. Few traditionalist Christians are likely to be convinced by the author’s frequent reminder that orthodoxy is fun.

That being said, especially to the novice, The Thrill of Orthodoxy can be a useful introduction to historical Christianity. I would recommend even more the references in the back of the book that would deepen the reader’s exploration of the faith. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a remarkable text for seeing catholic universalism in a new and whimsical light. And, of course, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has for several generations brought a philosophical approach to faith that has enchanted many believers. Wax’s contributions to this discussion are not unfruitful, as he reminds us that orthodoxy is more fulfilling than any other gnostic gospel we might try to live.

A Sexy Savior

A few decades ago, I found myself surprised that Christian music embraced a strangely romantic tone. In fact, if you didn’t know you were listening to Christian radio, you’d probably be ignorant that the subject of the song was not a young, nubile female but the God of the universe. This blurring of the line between worship and romance may feel unusual, even heretical, to the orthodox mindset. But as the revival at Asbury University is reminding us this last week, the Spirit is reaching out to this generation in exciting and intimate ways. A controversial observation on a topic such as this will frequently draw sneers of criticism demanding clarification. I am asking for prudence and wisdom from my readers, not reactionary defensiveness. For people of the Book must be people of the whole Book. 

The contemporary traditionalist is much more comfortable with the image of God as Father—and understandably so. He would point to countless instances, especially in the New Testament, where God frames Himself in these terms. But even so, he often sees the Father as stern, exacting, and a no-nonsense disciplinarian rather than comforter, nurturer, and healer. Living through the Depression and surviving World War II, fathers of the 1950s and ‘60s typically held an emotionally distant, austere view of relationships, knowing they could be swept away in an instant. The unintended consequences of this movement were that we grew up assuming that God was the same way. In short, the Greatest Generation’s view of Dad and his role shaped our conceptions of Abba.

This was not, however, the perspective of other generations of believers. Medieval nuns, interminably single by the world’s standards, considered themselves married to Christ, took vows, wore veils, and even donned wedding rings—a custom increasingly in practice by a growing number of nuns today. The thirteenth-century hermit and mystic Richard Rolle wrote profound religious verse adoring God, poems that were not seldom tinged with an unusual eroticism. Margery Kempe, another mystic, made many fifteenth-century canons very uncomfortable with her ecstatic visions and feminine depictions of Christ, not to mention her growing popularity as a female authority. No less than the metaphysic John Donne, in his Divine Meditations, speaks of being ravished by Christ. Their experiences are even mirrored in some of our own favorite old-timey music. A veiled sexuality inhabits classics like “Behold a Stranger at the Door”, “I am His and He is Mine,” and of course, “I Come to the Garden Alone.” Rarely are these hymns read through this prism, but a casual glance at the lyrics certainly skims the surface of double entendre. 

Because of the volatility of Eros in a Christian sub-culture, we are reluctant to fully consciously and publicly embrace it, rightly concerned that such dangerous materials could prove disastrous in untrained hands. Critics are quick to balk at the sexuality peddled by popular culture today, from everything to advertising to film to fashion. Indeed, my students are so averse to the stories of Paolo and Francesco in Inferno, or of Romeo and Juliet, they reject these lovers as experiencing anything but lust; surely, they say, there can be no possible love between them. But this criticism, often rightly earned, can communicate sexuality’s pitfalls to the exclusion of its virtues. Hosea details the tragic, sickening portrait of adultery, but Song of Songs enthusiastically celebrates sexuality within the marriage. Song of Songs is conspicuously lacking any reference of God in its sensual lyrics, and yet the church fathers insisted it be regarded canonical because of its allegorical value as a beautiful portrait of Christ and his Church. But even the untrained eye cannot miss the near obscene quality of the text: “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits” (4:16, KJV), or “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock” (5:4-5, KJV). It is not difficult to see why Song of Songs might go really well to a Barry White tune.

If we indeed read such erotic lyrics as allegorical, and not merely literal, then it must radically change our perceptions of God. His love encompasses Storge, Phileo, Agape, and Eros—no verbal description, no type of love is beyond him. The God who chases us through the garden and anoints us with perfume is also a God who would bow his head and take up a cross. Rather than gloss over the overtly sexual metaphors in sacred text and insist on the image of the austere potentate, would we not be better served to acknowledge to ourselves and to a lost world that God is passionately in love with us? While the picture of God in the bedroom playing Marvin Gaye may make us squirm, it also presents the portrait of a creator who eagerly desires intimacy with his creation.  He whispers gently, “Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is as strong as death…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the flood drown it” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Through Eros life is created and it is fulfilled. It is the passion of the beloved, and the ability to laugh at one’s lover. It is the friendly ear and the touch of a warm hand. God’s love for us is not simply a simile of the marriage relationship. It is the marriage relationship, with all the erotic connotations included—emphasized, highlighted and underlined in scarlet red.