Every time I teach Gospel and Culture, I'm amazed at the range and scope of the topics chosen by students for the Critical Contextualization Project. They choose a belief, practice or symbol from a religion or cultural group and followed Paul Hiebert's four-step process of critical contextualization (Understanding Folk Religiions (2000): 21-29). They presented this week briefly in class and wrote a 3,000 word research paper using an adapted form of Hiebert's process:
Phenomenological Analysis (what in the world is it),
Ontological Critique (compare and contrast with other cultures and religions),
Theological Evaluation (what the Bible and theological sources have to say about it if anything),
Missiological Transformation (how to respond with the Gospel if encountered in mission and ministry).
Here are the topics my 33 students covered this year:
Tripping into Grace--Review of Theology of Luck: Fate, Chaos, and Faith by Rob Fringer and Jeff Lane (Beacon Hill Press, 2015)
TL;dr Lots of the book seemed like a extended version of a term paper written for a seminary class, but there were redemptive bits providing more than food for thought but also maybe a better way to think of what it means to be in relationship with the Divine.
I wanted to like this book out of the sheer pleasure of the title: how can someone not smirk ironically at a title like a “theology of luck.” The first few chapters veered toward the idea of “luck” in religious experience and then swerved back into territory mostly familiar to the seminarian.
Even with the lofty beginning that made this professor want to set it down, I felt like I needed to mark it for a grade but for summer break, until there appeared this gem of a morsel of a great idea on page 31: “So, then, the God of the universe is the God who has demonstrated a willingness to initiate but a hesitance to dominate.” New paragraph for the next line: “This is a difficult concept for many.” Okay, let’s go there, the coffee's hot and there's a week left before classes start, but alas the authors did not or at least they skated around this concept for the rest of the book but did not jump completely into the fray. Instead, they enjoy the plausible deniability of holding a paradox (see page 33) and willowy notions of relationship with the Divine. I'm a recovering educational psychologist, and I believe the human psyche is important but there's so much more to religious faith than personal perceptions.
I almost backed out completely by page 41 in the middle of the chapter entitled "Lucky?" Here there was an expectation of jumping in the deep end, but it is written, “Why does it matter to us what the world thinks of our God? Because it matters to God.” Huh? As I read the words of God’s interactions with Abraham and Issac and Jacob and the prophets, filtered through Jewish rabbinical tradition with a low threshold for drek, and then Jesus' dialogue with the first disciples and religious leaders, filtered through intellectually honest gospel writers, I do not think this notion of divine like-ability ever entered God’s self-revelation. I cannot even think of a single place in Scripture where this is the case. I could be wrong. Let me know if you find a moment in Scripture where this happens.
The absence of engaging folk traditions in popular religiosity and similar beliefs among adherents of Islam, Hinduism, and its cousin Buddhism was, in a word, disappointing. Even my neighbors in the American Appalachian region have all kinds of practices that entertain the avoidance of bad luck and the search for certainty. Hex signs on the side of Amish barns come to mind as well as planting by the phases of the moon might just help a crop produce bountifully or wither on the vine. The summer of 2015 brought about a rare instance of a blue moon, when a full moon happens twice in an astrological sign—as one blogger put it “a lunar bonus round” for the Wiccan community, also very much a part of my neck of the woods. Fun fact--The term “blue moon” was first recorded in a 16th century letter by Cardinal Wolsey in defense of Henry VIII of England against the “wily foxes” of the clergy who “say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true.”
All this to say, a cursory search, not even a scholarly one, turned up many examples of luck and fate; none of these beliefs and practices are seriously engaged in the early chapters. The authors do engage books resting on seminary shelves, such as those written by Greg Boyd and John Sanders. Luck is defined away as "irrational," and natural disasters are blamed on the “brokenness of this world.” (page 42) Um, okay. At the same time, the proposed solution is found in the inter-relatedness of all things under God’s purview, which seems like a momentary lapse in logic: Move long, God can still do what he wants, so whatever. Maybe I read through this section too fast.
The jargon continues with a parachute drop of a phrase like “compatibilist view” into the middle of a paragraph without any context (page 48_. The argument against deterministic views then glides over biblical examples of Pharaoh’s heart-hardening in Exodus and the selection by lots of Matthias as one of the Twelve in the Book of Acts. These are fascinating cases and could have been examined more thoroughly. It is my personal view that the apostles leapt in front of the Holy Spirit’s moving and selected a new apostle that is never mentioned again in Scripture, yet another young, though very unsavory, man named Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58, and will go on to pen 60% of the New Testament as Paul the apostle. First year university students in Bible are always curious about Pharaoh and his hardened heart. Does God create the context for disobedience as well as obedience? Does the Divine stack the deck against his creatures? Am I just a pawn on a giant chessboard? These biblical cases were a mother lode of insight (it's why they are biblical) but not to be fully excavated.
As harsh the review might seem so far, the book takes a welcome turn with a reflection upon the story of Joseph. I kept wondering if Joseph's tale, though was about luck or just existing within God’s sphere of awareness. The authors return to this idea of divine awareness in the final chapters. Their treatment of Joseph showed promise, and it very well could have anchored the entire book. There’s a lot to work with there.
Speaking of divine awareness, living under the sun, so to speak, I like the powerful Hebrew word “shamar” at work throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and into the Gospels and Pauline letters. It is one of the single most powerful metaphors in all of Scripture. Shamar appears first in Genesis: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15) – to work it and shamar it. It appears again in Genesis 4, the fratricidal Cain asks of God, "Am I my brother’s keeper”—brother’s shamar-er. Psalm 121 has eight occurrences related to God’s deep and abiding care for His people.
The concept of "watching over" continues with the search for a king found finally in the shepherd boy David, sought for by the prophets, especially Ezekiel (chapter 34), and revealed to shepherds as the Good Shepherd in Jesus. Paul talks about church leaders as an "episkopos" or overseer, like a shepherd. I thought the authors were going to go this way at the bottom of page 146. Whew. They did not, although they write of stewardship in the broad sense. I think I need to write a book on “shamar” before someone beats me to it.
Now for the Good Parts, IMO
As much as I have conveyed some criticism so far, the book is worth a read just for what it says about manipulation, obedience, and vocation. The counterpoint of obedience to manipulation in chapter 4 is probably the single most important idea in the book. Obedience is equated with hearing. This is a point I make in freshman Bible class, in preaching, and in casual conversation. It makes the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel . . . “) all the more poignant. People love the Lord only through obedience which only happens when one hears. The one who hears cannot easily manipulate the Other with sugary words and stylized ritual so common in consumeristic religious practices.
The manic arts are prevalent in the Church, and the authors call out bibliomancy (page 84): Opening the Bible, reading a verse and taking action because it was meant to be. Nope. It was just a lazy reading of the Bible. Good for the authors. A needed correction here for the tendency to be satisfied with making consumers instead of disciples, more willing to “get something out of it” than “follow the Rabbi no matter how long it takes.” The argument continues in a later section on authority, in which true disciples are said to share a “conferred authority” with God and return it in true worship “not through acquiescence or manipulation but through participation” (page 114). Good. Stuff. Here.
Is there a choice in the matter or a magical rendering of what to do and be, not an unfair expectation of a generation reared by the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. If only it was so easy. J. K. Rowling is sleeping on a bed of a billion dollars tonight because she told a story of how not-easy it is to find the direction life may take. The realization that “we are God’s desire” (page 164) is a balm for the anxious young adult wondering what comes next.
The response Fringer and Lane offer is a good one, and frankly, the topic of the entire book in its own right: moving from a hermeneutic of authority (receiving a divine harness) to a hermeneutic of optimism (human hands-on action) to a hermeneutic of love (being responsible to the gift of divine grace). True, sometimes tripping into the arms of God is part of realizing the extent of God's capacity for inviting humanity on a walk with Him into the mystifying tumbles and turns in this mysterious creation.
As I edited this post, I couldn't help but think of "Walk of Life" written by Mark Knopfler, one of my favorite artists, that brings together the themes of this book and why it should strike a chord in the Western mindset with its dual love of music and sports as portrayed in the video below: stumbling, getting back up, enduring, seeking companionship in the midst of pain, trying to do something significant, figuring out faith in the fog, hearing and being heard, and finding a path through the days.