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Friday, November 17, 2006

God's Will

I've been using this book, PROVERBS OF ASHES: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and The Search for What Saves Us, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in one of the courses I teach at The Theological School at Drew University.

I highly recommend it.

It is precisely what it says it is, discussing redemption and salvation through the lens of domestic violence and child abuse, and taking direct aim at the Doctrine of the Atonement and the idea of 'Suffering Servant' as part of the problem of violence against women and children.

Not surprisingly, the book, my lecture and the ensuing class discussion caused great controversy among the students.

The class demographics are marvelous: about 1/3 each Western European, Korean, and African/Caribbean/Afro-American, with a surprisingly refreshing parity in terms of gender.

Drew is a Methodist school, so the greatest predominance of the class is Methodist, but there are more and more non-denominational Evangelicals and Black Baptist, with a smattering of Episcopalians, Lutherans and even a few Roman Catholics.

You can imagine, then, the reaction which was engendered by a direct challenge to the Doctrine of the Atonement, much less the exhortation for religious leaders to the 'immitation of Christ' as the 'Suffering Servant'.

I’m working on a proper book review, but couldn’t resist this initial comment.

One of the question asked in the class was whether or not I saw a connection between the issue of Clergy Wellness (Lord, I really don’t like that term! Can’t we think of something else? Something that sounds a bit more intelligent and not like a made-up-New-Age-crunchy-granola-tree-hugger’s word?) with the notion of Suffering Servant.

For me, that’s a direct line in the connect-the-dots of cause and effect.

Nothing could provide a better example of that connection than a new book that has just been published. I saw the advertisement in the last issue of THE LIVING CHURCH, which, in fact, prompted this blog.

GOD’S WILL: A Biography, by John Wells Warren.

Here’s what the ad says:

“An essential lesson for every bishop, priest and vestry. The Rt. Rev’d William George McDowell, Jr., fifth Episcopal Bishop of Alabama (1882 – 1938), worked himself to exhaustion, and died of pneumonia at the age of fifty-five on a visit to his parishes in Mobile. Bishop McDowell left a young wife with six children, no home, no automobile, $10,000 in life insurance, and a small church pension. GOD’S WILL is a story of dedication and sacrifice. It’s your story.”

I most certainly hope it is NOT your story! If nothing else, CREEDO, the weeklong workshop for clergy to assess their vocation, their life and their spirituality, has changed that.

The fact that there is something like CREEDO, however, speaks volumes about the impact of the Doctrine of Atonement and the idea of the Suffering Servant.

Read PROVERBS OF ASHES. Or, at least, put it on your Christmas Wish List. I’ll leave this quote from Rebecca Parker to whet your appetite:

“So, if you find me arguing against the theological notion that Jesus’ execution is a revelatory gift, you’ll understand why. Jesus didn’t have to die for us to know that God is present. He didn’t have to rise from the dead for me to know that God’s creative power is greater than death. Judaism already affirmed this, knew all this. Furthermore, nobody has to suffer for God to be made known to us.”
Somebody give me an, ‘Amen.’


Ann said...

Amen. I have to book on my desk in the pile to be read. Guess I will move it to the top along with your other recommendation "Problems with Atonement."

Kristen said...

I throughly enjoyed the book, your lecture ( thank you for your openess and honesty), and the conversation that followed. It gave me a whole new perspective that I will carry with me as I enter the ministry.

Clement Ng said...

There is no doctrine of atonement per se. Rather, there are doctrines of atonement, such as:

Moral Influence
Ransom/Christus Victor
Penal Substitution

Feminist theologians who critique the traditional notions of Satisfaction or Penal Substitution still need to explain the significance of atonement - they have to answer the question "Why did Christ die?". But whatever they propose as an alrenative to the historical theories would be another doctrine of atonement.

Ann said...

Kristen - you entered the ministry when you were baptized. If you become ordained that will be your specialty but all of us are called to ministry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

To Clement NG:

Please read PROVERBS OF ASHES before deciding what 'feminists still need to explain.'

You might also find PROBLEMS WITH ATONEMENT by Stephen Finlan helpful to you.

Hiram said...

You say, "It is precisely what it says it is, discussing redemption and salvation through the lens of domestic violence and child abuse, and taking direct aim at the Doctrine of the Atonement and the idea of 'Suffering Servant' as part of the problem of violence against women and children."

Is there any research that definitively connects the teaching of substitutionary atonement and domestic violence? Or is this simply a case of an "urban legend," like the claim made a few years ago that Super Bowl Sunday was the day of the year with the highest incidence of domestic violence?

When I was in the Dio of SC some 20 years ago, Bp Allison said, "The liberals just can't stand the blood of Christ." He certainly seems to have hit the nail on the head. (Apparently, we don't need the blood of Christ to redeem the world, just the MDG's.)

Have taken the book of Hebrews out of your Bible, along with most of Romans and parts of 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and the epistles of Peter? Not to mention those parts of the Gospels where Jesus says that he has come "to give his life as a ransom for many"?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Is there any research that "difinitivly proves" ANYTHING in scripture?

If you are pandering in certanties, you are not in the realm of faith and theology.

My real curiosity is why folk like you read blogs like mine - much less feel compelled to comment, especially when you have absolutely no intention of reading either PROVERBS OF ASHES or PROBLEMS WITH ATONEMENT.

You have already decide the answers to the questions you ask, so why ask them?

I can only imagine that it must be torture, pure torture for you to remain in the Episcopal Church.

I'm sorry for that, and I hope your pain comes to an end soon.

Clement Ng said...

Of course there are problems with the concept of atonement. Why else would we have so many theories?

And, no, I don't need to read PROVERBS OF ASHES before pointing to questions that all theologians, feminist or not, need to consider at some stage. Every moral philosopher reflects on the nature of rights and obligations. Every metaphysicist asks whether or not universals exist. Every systematic theologian examines the concept of atonement (and some, like Steven Finlan, abandon the concept altogether - but that move itself constitutes another theory!).

A feminist may find the whole idea of penal subsitution conducive to oppression and offer an alternative. But that is just what we expect when we ask "Why did Christ die?". Again, there is no single doctrine of atonement per se (although we often speak in this sense when we refer to a subject area). Rather, there are several doctrines (or theories) of atonement.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Clement NG,

Re: "I don't need to read PROVERBS . . ."

Just what the world needs: another person who has has made up his mind about what the questions are and how they are to be answered.

Lucky you.

Not so luck us.

Jon said...

Ok, I'm slightly confused now. hiram's first question didn't look like it was about scripture at all; it looked more like a question of sociology or something. Does the book assume a positive correlation between holding some theory of atonement and engaging in domestic violence? I wouldn't be surprised if there is such a correlation, but things like that are probably best demonstrated.


Grace said...

I'm thinking the important thing is not that all Christians need to agree concerning the precise mechanics of the atonement, or use the same terminology, but that we just need to affirm that the death of Jesus puts us right with God, that He truly overcame death and evil, and that by faith in Him we can share in the life of God.

I personally think that the Scripture does express some concept of substitution, although I don't pretend to be able to fully understand or to explain this.

I can't speak for this author as I haven't had a chance to read her book. But, I have heard other opinions that this concept of substitutionary atonement is like a model of divine child abuse. I just can't agree. It was God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It was God who entered into human life and suffering, absorbing the consequence of evil and sin into Himself. I do think the cross of Christ reveals the love of God in a very special and profound way.

Also, I think it's important to realize that any Christian doctrine can be abused and misinterpreted. Just look at what has happened to the whole concept of Christian dominion. What should have been a command to godly, righteous, stewardship of the creation has been twisted to mean a permission to rape and exploit the natural world.

So I'm thinking is the central difficulty really the Biblical concept of the atonement, or is the problem in our own fallen human understanding and application?

I also personally think that we should always be open to each other, and trust God's spirit to give us a unity together in so many of these issues.

God bless!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I love this quote from John Wesley, whom the Methodist claim as their own, but who, as we all know, died a faithful Anglican:

"We do not have to think alike to love alike."


Hiram said...

Elizabeth, what I was attempting to say was that if you are going to change a major doctrine of the Christian faith and do so because you think that its current expression has negative consequences for people, you need to show, with a degree of scientific rigorousness, that the negative consequence you are addressing in fact exists, and exists for the reason you say it does.

Does a substutionary understanding of the atonement lead to widespread spousal/child abuse? If so, we should look at the doctrine again, or at how it is taught. But if it does not, then to change the doctrine for that reason is unreasonable.

Somewhere in my systematic theology notes, I have a list of the four types of language the New Testament uses to speak of the Cross and of what happened there. Two of those are the language of the law court and of the marketplace (this area speaks of "redemption"). I am going to have to dig those out, because all four are important to understanding, as much as we can, what God did and does through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


There is a large body of evidence which already exists which links domestic violence with direct quotes from the bible.

I'm quite sure most of it, like the book PROVERBS OF ASHES is anectdotal with theological statements by the authors.

Scientific studies? I'm sure I don't know. But, I wouldn't doubt it. The social science study/field of domestic violence is aobut 40 or 50 years old.

Government funds have been used to create shelters for battered women. I can't imagine there haven't been scientific studies done on the causes of domestic violence.

And, I can't imagine these studies having been done without Scriptural verses having been implicated.

I think what books like PROVERS OF ASHES accomplish is to begin the serious conversation about our firmly held doctrinal beliefs by challenging them with new, anecdotal information.

But, scientific studies? Hmmmm . . come to think of it, how has solid scientific evidence changed the way some folk view the Doctrine of Creation?

Isn't that part of the debate about Creationism, Intelligent Design and Evolution?

Can you think of one doctirne which has been changed because of scientific study?

I'm asking a question here, not arguing with you. I can't think of one.

Then again, it's a little after 5 PM on Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I'm rushing out to do my grocery shopping because our guest list went from 6 to 12 overnight.

Ah, such is the stuff of postmodern theological debate.

janinsanfran said...

I found this book one of the few things I've read as challenging to me as feminism was in the early 1970s. Folks who think they can slough it off, categorize it with ease, should read it first. It is a mind-stretcher -- an experience I always consider a gift from the Creator.

BTW -- that said, I am not sure I agree with this book, whatever that might mean.