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.

My Kingdom for a Metaphor!

I love my work. It is a rare profession to be able to discuss history, literature, art and philosophy all in one setting. Synthesizing the great ideas of the West is like looking at the entire world from the height of an airplane through the lens of a microscope. 30,000 feet at 300x magnification. Everything and everywhere all at once.

But it can also be unsettling—certainly for the students, but also for me. I often feel caught between the moon and New York City. I don’t always have the answers, and I, too, am often confused. But, as we tell the students, taking our cues from Socrates, confusion is a good place to begin—for it prompts us toward discovery.

One of the areas in which students struggle is in transposing philosophy and literature. It is not that they do not grasp the differences in genres—as they almost invariably prefer the latter to the former. It is that they do not always know how the metaphors of literature are understood in the descriptive analysis of philosophy.

In fairness, these modes are frequently at one in their aims if often opposed in their means. As Kierkegaard notes, the outer, physical world feels chaotic and unjust—and it often is—while the world of the spirit conforms to immutable, divine laws. “He who shall not work shall not eat” is an immutable law of the spirit, to which we would readily assent, for all must labor and cultivate their own gardens. But reality shows that sometimes the unjust do not truly work for their bread, and yet their bellies are glutted and their tongues saturated. In the stories, the good nearly always succeed, while the wicked are put down—and the world is restored to heavenly order once again. Aladdin, in choosing integrity and aiming at personal wholeness, achieves both wholeness and riches. But to choose integrity in the outer world often comes with the price tag of significant loss and suffering.

Such is the dilemma Bobby presented in class. In our discussion of Summa Theologica, Bobby wrestled with the concept, like St. Thomas Aquinas before him, of the objective world being understood by the subjective subject. How can reality ever be understood if we see things solely through our individual experience? The existentialist throws his hands into the air and proclaims that such a feat is impossible, for, he incorrectly reasons, existence must precede essence. Or, in other words, life or self-hood must come before understanding or consciousness. Humanity has no fundamental value—no established essence or nature—so we have the freedom to create our nature. Subjectivity matters more than objective fact.

To help himself out, Bobby turned to the Ugly Duckling. For the aesthetically-unpleasing fowl was not vulgar by nature, only in comparison to his more uniformly attractive siblings. He was taught he was ugly only because he was in the wrong flock. Reason, Bobby explained, could not address every human concern because we cannot apply it to all things—as, for example, matters of faith.

I applauded dear Bobby for his efforts, but in this case, it was the metaphor applied to the wrong thing. The very purpose of the Thomistic project was the synthesis of reason and faith, so that where reason can rationally demonstrate the existence of God yet cannot prove the nature of the Trinity, it can be supported by faith; and where faith cannot explain the effect of physics on my six-year-old’s ability to get a pill stuck in his sinus cavity, reason can. But then again, perhaps there are things never to be understood. The Ugly Duckling does not show the triumph of subjectivity but the necessity of objectivity—the need to rise out of one’s own immediate experience and to see the world as it rightly is.

The existentialist will once again raise his probing finger to claim we cannot know how the world rightly is. It is a problem as old as Plato, and even older when we see the Hebrew God do battle against his Egyptian challengers. The objective, measured testing of scientific hypotheses and religious truth claims are more or less one and the same. As Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, we have only to measure Christian morality to Nazi morality to know that one is far preferable to another. One is consonant with reality and the moral good, while the other wilts beneath the blazing heat of its truth.

What happens when the metaphor becomes a fixed prism through which to view reality? After all, surely Richard would not have relinquished his entire kingdom for a mere horse—for the horse would be the means by which he would attempt to reclaim the kingdom. The nature of metaphors is the power of analogy, to see in one thing but for a moment that this is the same as that. Yet if young readers cannot see past the story, they are apt to think that the story always ends happily ever after. That the Bachelorette always finds her man becomes as insoluble a truth as the Christ always rises from the tomb. The meaning, rather than clarified through metaphor, becomes lost in its details. The declarations of reason shatter in the beautiful depictions of poetry. The particular individual becomes everything while the universal becomes nothing.

I am happy to say that I think we walked Bobby through his angst and came out on the other side like Dante washing the angelic marks from his brow. And this is what learning in community should do for us—to tackle a big shelf topic together, to build consensus, and to discover truth.