Thursday, January 7, 2010

Putting God in His Place

A dear friend of mine who values my judgment on such things (silly man) asked me to read a book and tell him what I thought of it, the book's title having intrigued him. Gracious and generous person that he is, he purchased a copy and gave it to me to read. The book is titled Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place by Jon Pahl. Pahl teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and the book grew out of his teaching experience as a professor of theology and American religious history. I told my friend that I’d be happy to read the book, especially if I could get a blog out of it…sort of kill two birds with one stone. What follows, then, is a review, both for my friend and for my readers.

First, the good news. Pahl writes well, and the book (for an academic work) is a good read. His writing style is approachable and lively. Moreover, his passion for his subject comes through. The book is chiefly a theology (a statement of the author’s understanding of God) and is divided into two parts – critique and construct. In part one, he provides an overview of what he regards as the fundamental error of the orthodox view of God, how we arrived at it (he lays it at the feet of Augustine chiefly), and what its implications are. Then, in part two, he presents his constructive theology around a rather fanciful and imaginative use of several biblical metaphors: living water, light of the world, rock of salvation, the true vine, one body.

I wasn’t very far into the book before I knew where he was going, how he would get there, and what he would say. It was all quite predictable. The book represents the same old tired demythologizing program liberal “group think” has been peddling since the middle of the last century, only this time “clothed” in the garb of a PC “grid theology.” In brief, Pahl (heavily influenced by the work of Sally McFague, Marcus Borg and others) regards biblical revelation, language, and imagery as merely a “fashion” for clothing God…a fashion that not only does not possess any intrinsic authority but is also arcane, myopic, and destructive to the achievement of the one value Pahl regards as sacrosanct and axiomatic; namely, human self-realization (predictably and typically expressed in terms of “liberation” from “bondage” understood chiefly in social, political, and economic terms).

Pahl’s fundamental assumption is that orthodox theology is predicated on what he calls a “theology of time” rather than a “theology of place.” This is “academic speak” for his rejection of the whole idea of eschatology as the central matrix and context of the biblical revelation (see my blogs Kingdom Theology and Theology as Anthropology). The idea, everywhere present in the Bible, that God is the “Author” of the “story” we call history seems to writers such as Pahl too imperialistic, too monarchical, too paternalistic to be very helpful to modern persons. This idea of God, referred to as “transcendence” in theological parlance, just isn’t very “relevant” for modern persons who believe themselves to have some transcendence of their own. With McFague, he argues that the biblical models and images for God are no longer appropriate for our time because “the power balance has shifted from nature [and God] to us.” He continues: “Perhaps, then, God’s transcendence is not clothed most accurately in acts of moral agency or historical causality. Maybe history is really up to us, and God is a rather (as Luther sometimes intuited) sheer, loving presence available through places clothed in promises of grace.”

Of course, the problem with this kind of wholesale jettisoning of the notion of a transcendent God is that while this may not be the “god” we want, this is the only “God” the Bible has to offer! The Bible presents us with a transcendent God (see my blog on the book The Shack), a God who isn’t just an “actor” in the story we call history but is its “Author.” For this God, both time and space are merely metaphors for the matrix of God’s existence, God needing neither in which to “live.” Time and space are the stuff of our existence, not God’s. He is beyond both, and neither holds power over him or limits him in any way. He enters them (as, for example, in the history of the people of Israel recorded in the Old Testament, and in the Incarnation of the New Testament) only because he chooses to…because the Creator wishes to make himself known to his creatures. But God doesn’t live in time and space any more than Shakespeare “lived” in the story of Hamlet he created when he wrote the eponymous play.

What really troubles me about scholars like Pahl is that if he has such complete contempt for the biblical revelation, why bother to adduce it at all? He clearly rejects the idea that the Bible’s theological language and imagery are the stuff of divine self-revelation; rather regarding them as merely the product of human “clothing” of the divine, a “clothing” that is today in the judgment of the modern world looking all too shabby and threadbare. But instead of saying: “I repudiate the Bible’s God; I want to talk to you about a “god” more congenial to my values, principles, and commitments,” he employs a “free association” style of biblical interpretation in which he pilfers the biblical text for metaphors and images that suit his purposes without the slightest regard for the intention, meaning, or purpose of those metaphors and images in the context of the writings of the inspired biblical author. Why bother? If you think these people not only to be without any intrinsic authority but, even worse, part of a culture and worldview that was primitive, superstitious, chauvinistic, and destructive (with their metaphors such as “the kingdom of God” and God as “Father”), then why bother to attempt to “redeem” their images and metaphors at all? But it is my observation that theologians of this ilk like to “sound biblical” even when they’re not.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful to my friend for sharing the book with me. I learned long ago that I don’t have to agree with a writer to enjoy their writing, or to learn from them. However, at the end of the day, I have to say that I recognize Pahl’s agenda, but not his “God.” He subtitles his book, “Putting God in Place,” but I rather think it would have been more accurately subtitled, “Putting God in His Place.”

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