Theology with Color & Punch

October 17, 2016

 

“Theologians are the least rhetorical of writers,” judged Evelyn Waugh. “Their vocabulary is elaborate and precise.” In religious rhetoric, Andrew Sandin concurred, “Truth is [too often] conveyed ... in arid Thomistic parlance.” And publisher Frank Sheed wondered at the irony of men who in art choose only the masters, but in book preferences satisfy themselves with consuming pedestrian prose that reads like “chewing a mouthful of fur.”

 

So here's a review -- of a theology book -- that compliments an author for writing theology like writing matters, and for making a contribution of style as well as substance. (And as an aside, could a religious writer have a more perfect name? ...)

 

* * *

 

from Books & Culture March 2016

 

We evangelicals are not sure what to make of the Holy Spirit. Simply judging by the books released in the last five or so years, one might conclude that he seems either to be forgotten or re membered all too well—under-emphasized or over-emphasized. Not much middle ground exists for the third member of the Trinity. The hyper-charismatic theology of Pentecostal churches and pastors produces books that react to the cessationism from the more conservative camps, and our pneumatology continues to swing from one end of the pendulum to another.

 

Beyond the unfortunate extremes, our collective theology of the Spirit also seems small, overly personalized, and wholly experiential. A large and rich teaching on the Holy Spirit is needed in the church today—one that pulls back the lens and places the Holy Spirit in his rightful context: the Triune Godhead. As Duke scholars William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas write, "[W]hen Christians say Holy Spirit, they are not merely saying God; they are saying Trinity."

 

This is the theological beginning for Paul J. Pastor in his first book, The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit (David C. Cook, 304 pages). Pastor attempts to place the Holy Spirit back in his original context: the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is God, and when we write and speak of him, we are writing and speaking of the Triune God. This is a courageous and creative debut, but the reader realizes Pastor is up to the task within the first chapter. He tells us from the start that we are not in for an "exhaustive" theology nor a "strictly devotional" book. Instead, he gives us a "biblically grounded personal essay centering on a particular aspect of the Spirit's person and work." This is precisely what he delivers—and in fine fashion.

 

The book is organized around two biblical images from Revelation. Part 1 uses the "Seven Stars" and Part 2 the "Seven Lampstands." Pastor also places major images of the Spirit from the Old Testament in Part 1 and images/words/metaphors of the Spirit from the New Testament in Part 2. This organization is helpful, as Pastor's creative prose, while enjoyable and fluid, can often leave the reader reaching for a foothold. Along with Pastor's ability to tighten his stories up (he begins most chapters with a small, lovely anecdote and moves on from there), such sign-posting helps the reader locate himself through the prose.

 

The Face of the Deep is an experiment in what theology looks like with color and punch. Pastor's creative prose works well with the interior illustrations by Portland-based artist and educator Martin French. The result is a beautiful book. French's illustrations are like Pastor's sentences: never overbearing, but always captivating. Good writing carries readers along by pulling them in, and the design of this book appropriately matches the creativity of the prose.

 

Theology—orthodox theology—is nothing new, but rather, like a good folk song, must be renewed, or seen anew, again and again. When writers like Pastor re-articulate the ancient teachings of the church, our faith is reinvigorated. In a beautiful section on the prophets' relationship to the Holy Spirit as the one "who speaks the truth," Pastor writes, "When the stone-smashing moments, the river-parting moments, the floating-ax moments happen in Scripture, they happen in a context of rather remarkable unremarkability." These are the kind of places where Pastor lands after personal stories and biblical retellings. Bringing the reader along on the journey is his great gift.

 

Settled within such prose is a familiarity with paradoxical biblical metaphors: God is both in the valley and on the mountain, deep in the waters and "up" as we climb "holy mountains, the places where earth rises and heaven descends." As Pastor writes in his opening essay on the Holy Spirit's place in the Trinity, "No one has ever been able to speak of God without resorting to metaphors, so we understand that even our very use of these terms is calculated not for accuracy but for the limitation of our inaccuracies."

 

Pastor is unafraid to follow these paradoxes to their conclusion: mystery (one of his favorite words). He sits as comfortably in them as the text of Scripture does. The response to "mystery" that this book models is not represented by a shrug of the shoulders but rather by reverently open hands.

 

Face of the Deep is not the place to go for practical livability or simple application—something for readers to take with them instantly into daily life. If you are looking for a chapter specifically tackling the gifts of the Spirit in the traditional evangelical sense, you'll be disappointed, nor will you hear much about "the supernatural." In this way, the book is not very pastoral. And yet, we do not need every book to be "pastoral" in this restricted sense. Sometimes we need to feel our theology in order to understand it. Pastor helps us with this.

 

He writes, "When we lose our sense of God's immanence … we forget this: that in every life we take of man or beast, in every natural place we mine or harvest, in every eye we gaze into or look away from, we encounter something utterly strange, utterly familiar, utterly sacred." This is the Spirit of God—the Spirit who hovered over the earth in creation. Not pantheism; this is a full-fleshed theology of God's immanence and transcendence combined, showing off the Spirit for who he really is: a glorious God who moves through the earth and inhabits his people.

 

Even when approaching the Spirit's role in the new birth (a commonly over-individualized topic), Pastor pulls us back from the personalized, born-again-Christian route and into an expansive biblical vision. Commenting on Romans 8, Pastor writes, "Paul's vision [of the new birth] is as big as the world… . This is the upside-down reproductive process of heaven, the life of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit growing to fill and redeem the totality of creation." Pastor's head may be in the clouds here, but he convinces you the text can be taken there as well. He loves the cosmic level and makes you love it too.

 

This approach to the Holy Spirit is entirely biblical and thoroughly refreshing. In our overly personalized and individualistic spirituality, it is comforting to read something so big. And the vigor and imaginative reach of Pastor's prose offer a welcome alternative to the bland products of the modern evangelical industrial complex. How many books on the Holy Spirit are
simply boring?

 

It has not always been this way. When we take the time to read Calvin, Spurgeon, Buechner, Merton, and Lewis, we remember that our roots are more colorful and expressive than we might have supposed—these writers took risks with their sentences and stretched metaphors out to their full potential. Pastor is doing his part to redeem theological writing. Readers who want to expand and deepen their view of the Holy Spirit will find in The Face of the Deep a much-needed balance and a fresh vision for what can lie ahead.

 

 

 

Reading the above brought to mind an earlier book on the same topic by my favorite author, J.I. Packer. Several decades back in Keep in Step with The Spirit Dr. Packer shared the following:

 

To study the Holy Spirit's work is an awesome adventure for anyone  who knows, even at secondhand, what the Spirit may do. In 1908 some missionaries in Manchuria wrote home as follows: 

 

A power has come into the church that we cannot control even if we would. It is a miracle for stolid, self-righteous John Chinaman co go out of his way to confess to sins that no torture of the Yamen could force from him; for a Chinaman to demean himself to crave, weeping, the prayers of his fellow believers is beyond all human explanation. 

 

Perhaps you will say it's a sort of religious hysteria. So did some of us ... But here we are, about sixty Scottish and Irish Presbyterians, who have seen all  shades of temperament — and, much as many of us shrank from it at first, every one who has seen and heard what we have, every day last week, is certain there is only one explanation — that it is God's Hol Spirit manifesting himself .... One clause of the Creed that lives before us now in all its inevitable, awful solemnity is, "I believe in the Holy Ghost."

 

"Inevitable, awful solemnity"... Does that phrase fit our present perception of the Holy Spirit and his work? What happened in Manchuria in 1908, when the Spirit attacked and overthrew self-righteouness, got down to specifics in people's consciences, and robbed them of all rest and quietness till they confessed their sins and changed their ways, may be paralleled from the Acts of the Apostles. But where nothing of this kind happens, nor is even envisioned, claims that the Spirit is at work must be judged unreal. The Holy Spirit comes to make us holy, by making us know and feel the reality of God through his Son Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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