Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wrangling and Wondering: A (Brief) Response to Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson has provided an insightful interaction with my book Gospel Wakefulness over at Mere Orthodoxy. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

I fear I will not be doing Matthew's interest justice in that my response to his in-depth "caution" will be brief. I am grateful for the sharpening and the opportunity to revisit, clarify, and recommend the message(s) of Gospel Wakefulness, but one of Matthew's concerns is that the concept of gospel wakefulness (as I have framed it) does not allow for the reception of criticism. This hems me in a bit, gives me the same impression as the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If I do not respond at all, I prove him right. If I respond in rebuttal, I prove him right. The only way to prove him wrong is to say he's right. So you see my predicament.

So I'm going to let the chips fall where they may by protesting but hopefully without appearing that I "doth protest too much." :-)

Matthew bases this caution on the portion of my book where I offer a diagnostic outline of sorts. I say that inability to understand the concept of "gospel-centrality" is a sign one is not wakened to the gospel. Matthew bristles at that, perhaps for good reasons, as he later develops the fear of "gospel" as a Shibboleth and "gospel-centered" as a faddish buzzword that unhelpfully makes us designate some people are in and others are out. I offer two responses to this:

First, I stand by the list of signs there, but I ask that they be kept in the context of what else the book says about judging people as "in" or "out." I am grateful that Matthew refers to my response to Trevin Wax on this subject, something he had not done in his original draft (which he graciously sent me ahead of time). There are numerous passages throughout the book that speak directly to the issue of judging others, setting up tiers of Christianity, and the like. In fact, one of the built-in safeguards discussed in the book is that a person who pridefully operates like "I got this gospel wakefulness thing and you don't!" isn't gospel wakened.

I find it odd that Matthew has picked up on a few problematic passages that buttress his cautions but skips entirely over anything that might actually echo his cautions in the book itself. There is an entire chapter on Gospel Confidence that speaks within on the built-in humility of gospel wakefulness.

Secondly, the sign "The idea of gospel centrality makes no sense to you" is to "gospel un-wakefulness" as the symptom "chest pain" is to "heart attack." The former is indeed a symptom of the latter, but the presence of the former does not necessarily equate to the latter. That's why it's a list of signs to be considered, and I preface that list not by unequivocally saying "If this is you, you're off the team," but by saying "Let me like a doctor gently press on your assurance."

Matthew's other (larger?) concern is how the concept of gospel wakefulness as I outline it allows (or disallows) a faith that permeates political, cultural, and social endeavors. In this discussion, I would only refer back to my response to Trevin. It is indeed possible I didn't distinguish enough in the book between political activism and political idolatry, but that was not the focus of the book. I only maintain that I am not a quietist in the sense the book appears susceptible to being charged with.

Again, I find it odd that Matthew makes no reference at all to the portions of the book that would directly address gospel wakefulness' versatility in areas outside the explicitly "spiritual." I have an entire chapter on the tyranny of hyperspirituality that would speak directly to the ordinary effects of the gospel and the enjoyment of common graces, be they politics or pies (mud or otherwise). In my forthcoming book Gospel Deeps, I have a chapter on "gospel enjoyment" that seeks to expand this idea too.

The things Matthew wants addressed in order to provide cautions are actually in the book. In his published cautions he refers to my touching on the "gospel as catchphrase" in the Conclusion, but in his original draft he discussed the issue without any indication of knowing that part even existed. I had to refer him back to it.

The second to bottom line is this: I actually share Matthew's cautions. They obviously lay larger on his heart than mine, but they resonate with me. And they are in the book. But because the book is largely about exulting in the gospel and its implications, I did not give inordinate space to shoring up every philosophical fear that might arise.

And the very bottom line is this: My aim has not been to coin a concept but to hold up the gospel. As Augustine is said to have said: "Let others wrangle; I will wonder." That's where I'm at with this thing, where I've been at a long time, and I think this disinterest in peripheral wrangling has opened me up to some of the charges I have received. I do indeed find the gospel of Jesus more interesting than Harry Potter and politics, but in saying that I am not saying Harry Potter or politics are never to be discussed.

In any event, if "gospel wakefulness" must disappear into the dustbin of rhetorical nonsense for Christ's glory in the gospel to increase, so be it. And the quicker the better. I do not want "gospel wakefulness" to be counterproductive to the aim of gospel wakefulness.


Bobbi Brown said...

Thank you for your encouragement to be "wakeful" when it comes to the Gospel. I encourage others and am happy and blessed that there are other's encouraging everyone to gaze into the Gospel. What a comfort and excitement we miss when we don't!

Dubbahdee said...

I have not read your book. I did read Matthew's comments. I have been a reader of your blog for several years now -- so I think I have a sense of your thinking about "Gospel Wakefulness" although I'm not familiar with a particulars of the book.

So...having said that, I read Matthew's comments with a persistent sense that he could not have read the entire book. I found it hard to believe that you had not addressed the issues he mentioned. While clearly well meaning, I felt that his writing had just a bit of the "Whoa Nellie!" that seems to come from those who are too worried about people getting carried away with all this cheap grace, gospel freedom stuff. He seemed to be straining some gnats but missing some camels.

I have used the phrase "gospel wakefulness" to help me define what has been happening to me over the past 3 years and to explain it to others. It has been very helpful. My waking up to the gospel has not ever made me feel superior to anyone - only made me want them to understand what I have seen and learned. Everything is truly different for me since Christ has brought me deeper into himself -- I think of it as going deeper into the waters of my baptism in him. I find sharing this with people more natural than ever, and it comes from a place of solidly grounded humility that I have never before experienced.

I am encouraged by the dialogue taking place between you and Trevin and you and Matthew. Thank you, to all sides, for grace-filled conversation.