It’s not often that I encounter a book that is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I picked up Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners as background reading for some upcoming conversations about sexuality in the Church of England. What I encountered were some deeper insightsThis isn’t really a book about sex and stuff, it’s a book about the stars; it beholds God’s grand narrative intimately and deeply and with no loss to its grandeur.

For better or worse, it is thoroughly Roman Catholic. The reason it is “for beginners” is because “Theology of the Body” is actually John Paul II’s opus. This book is Christopher West’s commentary on that work. Some caveats are therefore necessary; it is Catholic, and sometimes that is jarring. The mention of Joseph and Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, and the censuring of contraception are two cases in point. These assertions, however, are mostly tangential to the essence of West’s argument, which remains worthwhile.

I found myself exploring the content in two aspectspersonally and eschatologically – and two applications – individually and ecclesiastically. They are all intertwined, and it can be a confronting exercise.

For myself, when it comes to the personal aspect, I am quite familiar with my body. Over time, I have learned to listen to it. This is partly because as I’ve got older I’ve had afflictions, such as bladder cancer, which require me to pay attention. But mostly it’s because I am also familiar with anxiety. I know when the “fight or flight” adrenaline response kicks in, and when the knot in my stomach firms its grip. I am acutely aware when physical and existential angst overlap. I have experienced surgery trauma during a delicately intimate emergency procedure. I have also experienced, in my time, ecclesiastical mistreatment. Somehow my body conflates them and remembers both as a form of violation.

When it comes to the eschatological aspect, my engagement is this: I’m old enough to look back at my virile youth when zeal was pumping through my veins. Dreams and longings fizzed and popped. I would lie awake at night, not only moved by the prospect of juvenile romances, but by the sheer abundance of life ahead. I had idealism, expectation, and a simple desire for life.  But it’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing entirely to pursue life “in the flesh.” It’s one thing to fantasize about a romance, and even act it out with someone else, exploring each other physically like adventurers on the brink of a new world. It’s another thing to bring those dreams, and those romances, into steady, stable, committed, reality. Our bodies get spent in the pursuit of life, yet that deep foundational desire is still in there. Belief, when manifest in the physical world, takes the form of desire; we long to desire life, and for life to desire us.

My question of myself, then, is how do I process this experience?  How do I process it theologically? Abstractions and metaphor have their place, but it comes down to something physical: How am loved by God? Me, in this failing, hurting flesh? Me, a fallen man. Am I safe with him? Does he love me in this fat, old, pale, body of mine? Will he be there for me when me and mine need him, literally?

And what about this church that I’m a part of? If we are, together, the Bride of Christ, then I can imagine us looking wistfully in the mirror, studying ourselves with a degree of shame. Perhaps there is torpid obesity, self-afflicted wounds dividing one member from the next, a hacking sickness as yet another abusive leader lodges like phlegm in our lungs. Are we abandoned? Can we ever be fruitful? Who are we that He, our Saviour, should desire us? In our own internal monologue, we speak to each other as if Jesus isn’t even in the room. Shared belief, when manifest in the ecclesiastical world, eventually boils down to desire, and therefore worship.

Do we trust that he loves us? Do we entrust ourselves to him? Forget about strategic plans and all the other church fippery; that’s what it comes down to in the end.

This is why a theology of the body is important. It touches us deeply, intimately, powerfully – both individually and collectively. This part of theology brings implications for all the hot-topic issues; it is why I was reading the book. But those topics are touchstones for a reason. They touch places that run very, very, deep.

No wonder we are all so interested in sex. God put an innate desire in every human being to want to understand the meaning of our creation as male and female and our call to union. Why? To lead us to him. But beware of the counterfeits! Because sex is meant to launch us toward heaven, the enemy attacks right there. When our God-given curiosity about sex is not met with the “great mystery” of the divine plan, we inevitably fall, in one way or another, for the counterplan. In other words, when our desire to understand the body and sexuality is not met with the truth, we inevitably fall for the lies…
(Page 108)

What West has encouraged me to do is to not shy away from words such as “erotic” when  framing concepts of God’s love and mission. For many of us, “erotic” is a difficult word to talk about, and antithetical to anything divine. Eros often connotes uncontrolled passion, lustfulness, or a desire to dominate or manipulate. But we’re talking pure or redeemed eros here. It speaks of yearning and longing and of a form of love that is physically manifest. “Capital ‘E’ Eros – the very fire of God’s love – this is where small ‘e’ eros, the fire within each of us – is meant to lead.” (page 120). The incarnation teaches us that Jesus came in the flesh, and the defining act of “God so loved the world” was “This is my body, broken for you.”  Eros is not something that taints the divine, it is the divine that defines and confines the fire of eros, and is its only satisfying end.

This maddening ache I felt inside was a yearning for the infinite, and God put it there to lead me to him… Christ doesn’t want us to repress our desires, he wants to redeem our desires – to heal them, to redirect them toward an infinite banquet of love and ecstatic bliss called “the marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.9). Discovering this set me on fire!
(Page 3)

Therefore “the body is not only biological… [it] is also theological”, West says (page 11), and he is right. Indeed, “Ours is an enfleshed religion, and we must be very careful never to un-flesh it” (page 13).  When we respond to Jesus, we don’t merely give intellectual assent, but a physical response. Not only do we “come to the altar” or wash our bodies with the waters of baptism, our very selves become his. To belong to Christ is to re-orient our physical selves, our yearnings, our longings, our actions, our sufferings. Collectively and individually we respond to his perfect and holy desire for us.

It doesn’t take too long for this to hit close to home. There were times when I had to put this book down because I was manifesting, physically, some of my traumas. I curled up in a ball. I felt, in my gut, the familiar knot of the unlovable, rejected, and ostracised teenager. I felt lonely; shallow-breathed, wild-eyed, scared, hiding my nakedness. I was being reminded that I want God’s love as more than theory; I long to know that the me-in-my-body is longed for, cared for, valued.

As I dared to dwell in this, I found the answer in the physicality of the cross. There have been times – very few times if I’m honest – when, as a man, I have expressed love by serving to the point of physical pain. But Jesus on the cross exemplifies such love. His love for me, for us, is leg-trembling, blood-sweating, shallowed-breathing, pain-moaningly clear. He loves me with his body; it is tenderness, it is affection, it is embrace. His touch on my life may be scary and frightening at times; but in his arms, I am safe, and I can surrender to him and bear much fruit to his glory.

But, to be honest, I struggle with those words. I’ve tried, and failed, to avoid sexual imagery. West’s encouragement is to not avoid it, but to find the holy foundations on which it is grounded. “In Christ eros is ‘supremely ennobled… so purified as to become one with agape‘” (page 23).  There are two foundations that help us:

The first foundation is our own physicality. In the Genesis accounts God creates humanity with physical, sexed, bodies – male and female. Of course, in this current moment of trans and gender militancy, this is a difficult topic, and there is a complexity of “lived experience” to pay heed to. Nevertheless, the essential link between biblical ontology and physical sex is powerful and essential. It can’t be eradicated without fundamentally shifting how we conceive of God, and of ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that includes our physicality. “God inscribed this vocation to love as he loves right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become ‘one flesh'” (page 12) and so to “fruitful communion” (page 18).

The second foundation is the so-called “spousal analogy.”  Here is the coherence between marital union and the union of Christ and the Church. It is epitomised in Ephesians 5:25-33. And despite the misrepresentation of its detractors, it was also the substance of the recent CEEC video The Beautiful StoryWest writes, “from beginning to end, in the mysteries of our creation, fall, and redemption, the Bible tells a nuptial, or marital, story” (page 21).

That’s where we can ground our language, and our thoughts.

Take the issue of masculinity. When talking to men about men it is easy to slip into caricatures: the emasculated man-of-the-cloth wearing vestments like a dress, or the macho preacher yelling for Jesus. It can only be approached through a theology of the body.

Us men must learn to be effective members of the church, the “Bride of Christ.” There is an unashamedly feminine form of intimacy in that notion; we rightly pray, as men, something like “bear fruit in us and with us and through us.”  Our sisters, therefore, have much to teach us. The female form of intimacy allows someone to be inside and to leave something there. Men are uncomfortable with that, but need to learn what it means to embrace vulnerability with dignity, honour, and grace-filled empowerment. Without it we struggle to entrust ourselves fully to God, and we certainly cannot nurture and lead his people. For West, drawing on the example of Mary, “every woman’s body is a sign of heaven on earth” (page 25), and that, exactly, is the eschatological nature of the church.

Male bodies have their fragility on the outside, and in our corruption we cover and defend, often by domination. The spousal analogy points to a redemption of this. Christ “gave himself” for his bride, the church. For West, therefore, “the theology of a man’s body can be described as a call to enter the gates of heaven, to surrender himself there, to lay down his life there by pouring himself out utterly” (page 25). No wonder Augustine referred to the “marriage bed of the cross” (page 26). I’ve had enough internal dialogues with myself, and real conversations with other men, to know how dearly we need a cruciform shape to our sexual discipleship.

Clearly, some conceptions of gender, singleness, and marriage are examined by the spousal analogy. It is why these are not second-order issues that are just going to go away. What West does really well is demonstrate how the orthodox or traditional view is not founded on prohibition or repression, but on worship and gospel proclamation. Clearly there is honour in the marriage union of husband and wife; it expresses a divine eros, and it can bear, quite literally, the fruit of new life. But it’s the divine eros that comes first; and none are excluded from it.

…marriage does not express definitively the the deepest meaning of sexuality. It merely provides a concrete expression of that meaning within history… At the end of history, the “historical” expression of sexuality will make way for an entirely new expression of our call to life-giving communion.
(Page 100)

For West celibacy is not a repression of sexuality, but a “fully human – and, yes, fully sexual – vocation” (page 36). All of us – including those of us who are married and sexually active – need to take heed. Our physical yearning is grounded in a more profound yearning that we all hold; to be united in Christ and to see his kingdom birthed in all its fullness. The older I get, the more I realise how that eternal desire is deeper and more profound than that found on the marriage bed. In fact the health of the marriage bed will usually reflect and reveal what is being grasped at the deeper divine levels.

What we yearn for, whether married or single, is a participation in the “spousal meaning” of our body. “Spousal love… is the love of total self-donation” (page 56), and the spousal meaning “is the body’s ‘power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning… of being and existence.'” Marriage looks back to the foundations of the spousal meaning, celibacy looks ahead to its deepest eternal fulfilment. Neither is ethereal. Undergirding both is an eschatologically pure eros desire for eternal communion.

Christ is the ultimate end of our search for intimacy. For those who are single; a sexual partner will not answer your deepest longings. For those who are married; your spouse and your sexual activity will not do it either. I echo West when he offers “great reverence” for the “cry of the heart for a spouse” of the person who is single and doesn’t want to be. Eros is the “cry of our hearts for the infinite… Whether we are single, married, or consecrated celibates, setting our sights on that eternal union is the only hope that can safely see us through the inevitable sorrows and trials of this life” (page 115). We all long for Christ.

We worship whatever we think will satisfy our deepest desires. Eros yearns for the infinite, crying out to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). In the divine plan, sexual love is meant to point us to the infinite and opens us up to it. But when we fail to see our sexuality as a sign that leads beyond itself to the mystery of God, eros gets “stuck” on the body itself, and we come to expect small “b” beauty to do what only capital “B” beauty is capable of: fulfilling our deepest longings.
(Page 62)

Here, at these deepest longings, the individual and the ecclesiastical intertwine.  When the church tears itself apart, it reveals what it worships. At the moment much of the church is tearing itself apart over sexuality. Our eros, our worship, is stuck, and we “don’t really believe God wants to satisfy our desires” (page 73). While we desire something other than Christ – the lusts of our consumerism, traditionalism, activism, nationalism, and even some hedonism – we are simply not a real embodiment of the gospel, not really a church.

But in all things – both personal and ecclesiastical – there is hope. There is the blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross. There is new wine to receive – quite literally in Communion. There is the Spirit of God, holding us, filling us, giving voice to groans, and making all whole, new, and fruitful. God desires us. How can that not awaken and delight our heart?

If Christians themselves don’t believe in the power of redemption to transform eros, what do we have to offer a sexually indulgent world other than rules and repression? If the contest is between the starvation diet and the fast food, the fast food wins hands down. But if redemption can truly redirect our desires toward a divine banquet that infinitely satisfies our hunger, the banquet wins hands down.
(Page 86)

I came to this book expecting some treatise that may inform a church controversy. I have left with some of my cynicism eroded. I have left having brushed against a beautiful thought such that “I was filled with a painful longing, a kind of nostalgia that grabbed me in the chest and became a prayer.” I have found myself praying: “I have been afraid that living from that ‘fire’ inside me would only cause me pain or lead me astray. Awaken a holy and noble eros in me, Lord. Give me the courage to feel it and help me to experience it as my desire for your Fire” (page 109).


philipeunuchOxford academic Emma Percy, writing in the most recent edition of Theology poses the question “Can a eunuch be baptized? and derives “insights for gender inclusion from Acts 8.”  It’s an interesting question to pose about an interesting text.  I came to the article at the suggestion of a colleague and as observation of how the thinking of the church engages (or fails to engage) with the prevailing issues of sex, gender and identity.

It’s a fraught topic.  We are talking about a fundamental sense of “self” here.  That’s a simple, hard, question: Who are you?  We can inform (and hear) the answer in terms of biology, psychology, sociology or a dozen other aspects.  But at the bottom of it all is one of those explorable-but-not-fathomable theological mysteries where we can get to the end of our language and risk talking at cross purposes.

Percy’s article enters into this space.  Her exegesis delivers some often overlooked aspects of Philip’s encounter on the road to Gaza and her argument extends to some good pastoral guidance.  In the end, however, this essay, in itself, reveals the semantic divide that besets these issues in particular, and theological discourse in general.

There is much to affirm. In the account in Act 8, of course, we have a eunuch.  Percy emphasises the physicality of this term: the word “eunuch” applies to a person who has been castrated and it was a real phenomenon in the culture of the time.  And, of course, the answer to the titular question is affirmative.  In the eunuch’s own words, “‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’”

This inclusion is kerygmatic in a profound way and Percy does well to expound it.  She highlights the gospel in it: covenantal exclusion overcome, “dry branches” grafted in, those with no physical legacy drawn into the eternal family of God, etc.  She is rightly incredulous: “I cannot count the number of sermons I have heard about the Ethiopian eunuch which have made no reference to the significance of his being a eunuch!”

In applying the text to the contemporary debate Percy is firstly ready to admit that “it is not appropriate simply to map the term ‘eunuch’ on to those who are intersex or transgender.”  She is secondly ready to do exactly that, using the lens “of people who do not fit into neat binaries of male and female.”

And so she brings us to consider intersex persons.  The mapping is not direct: A eunuch is an emasculated male and so defined by the binary, and what has been lost; an intersex person has indeterminate sex, described by referencing variations of either end of the binary or neither. Nevertheless, for both the eunuch and the intersexed, their embodied selves don’t fit “neatly” into the sexed categories, and the gospel inclusion of the eunuch does inform our response.

Percy outlines the pastoral implications.  To give just a few of her words:

The Acts 8 story itself offers an important reminder to make inclusion a priority.  Baptism becomes for the Church the mark of a Christian and, unlike circumcision, it does not require a particularly gendered body.  Women can be baptized and so too can those whose bodies do not conform to gender norms…

Clergy need to be aware of the pastoral needs of families with intersex babies who may want baptism before they feel they can assign a gender to their child.  Registers ask for the child’s sex, but surely this is not a necessary requirement of baptism.  In a culture where children are often identified as male or female by scans, even before they are born, the families of those who cannot be so neatly categorized need compassionate pastoral support.

It is when she turns next to consider transgenderism that we begin to run into the semantic issues that complicate dialogue on these sorts of issues.  To explain what I mean, I need to give my take on how language works in our search for meaning:

All language is ultimately self-referential, but it begins with a simple referent.  An example helps: when communicating the physical reality of a tree we use a word, such as “wood.”  It’s a simple syllable that refers to the physical reality of what trees are made.  A simple word, a simple physical referent, a simple meaning.

In the joy that is human creativity, semantics get expanded.  The fact that wooden objects are hard and rigid extends the meaning of “wood” to include a sense of hardness or immovability.  By this I can describe someone’s facial expression as “wooden.”  The simple word now means something additional, that is more complex and abstract.

This expansion is not a logical necessity, the expanding meaning only partially derives from the characteristics of the physical tree.  In a large part, the meaning comes from convention, common usage, and social norms; the semantics of the word are at least partly socially constructed.  And that construction can shift and expand even more: I could also use “wooden” to mean “rustic” or “natural.”  And now a word that is objectively derived from the physical stuff of a tree can mean anything from “emotionally repressed” to “undisturbed by the advancement of modernity”!

woodsemantics2The linguistic complexity can come full circle.  The original word, applied back to the initial referent, brings its expanded meaning with it.  And this is what leads to contradictions, the limitations of language, and talking at cross purposes.

To finish with my example: I might have in my garden a beautiful tree, that is full of life and character; the way it sways in the wind and the flowers that form on it speak of joy and vitality.  In attempting to describe this I might reach for an antonym.  To communicate the verve and vitality of my tree, I could say “my tree is not wooden.”  Linguistically, it is a contradiction, effectively nonsense.  It only communicates meaning if there is a shared understanding of semantics, agreed upon social norms that construct the sense of what that means.  If two interlocutors did not share or agree on the semantic space they would be talking at cross-purposes.

It’s a simplistic illustration.  It is manifoldly more complicated when we engage not with trees but with the meaning of self, our sense of identity.

In Percy’s engagement with intersex the semantic ground is relatively safe.  She emphasises the physicality of the eunuch and intersex, using physical words, even anatomical ones such as “micro penis.”  These words are closely connected to the simple referents of physical bodies.  Her meaning, and therefore, her exhortation, is thoroughly graspable.  And it should be grasped even by the most conservative reader.  In the politics of it all, conservatives who throw the whole “LGBQTI” alphabet soup into the one anathematised pot, should get a bit more bothered about doing the hard yards of seeking to understand the meaning of those letters and, at the very least, take a lead from Percy’s wisdom on how to care for those who are intersex.

But as the consideration moves from intersex to transgender, the semantic complexity escalates; the mystery of self is manifest in the various constructions and reflections that come in the search for meaning.  It can never be fully mapped out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  To that end, I find an important linguistic distinction between sex (as in intersex) and gender (as in transgender):

The concept of sex has a clear referent.  We use words such as “man” and “woman”, “male” and “female” and they closely encapsulate physical characteristics.  It’s why we use “male” and “female” to describe plugs and sockets!

malesemanticsThe expansion of these words in a shared semantic space is an engagement with a sense of gender.  Gender is more socially or self-constructed, a sense or even a “feeling” of what it means to be be male or female.  We use words such as “masculine” or “feminine” to explore this meaning.

Part of this meaning derives from the physicality of the referent sex.  e.g. “masculine” might adhere to a sense of muscular dominance, or assertive impositional (some might even say “penetrative”) engagement; “feminine” might adhere to softer embrace, or fierce motherly protectiveness.  But in this semantic expansion, the meaning also derives significantly from social expectation, poetic legacy, various forms of prejudice, and all the other things that you find in the shared language of a human community.

And, of course, as the semantics come full circle, those constructed meanings are applied back to the physical referent.  Our language reaches its end point:  We end up talking about “manly men” or “boyish girls” – linguistic tautologies and contradictions that only make sense if the social inputs into the semantic process are shared and agreed upon.

This is not just some academic exercise.  The subject at hand here is a sense of self.  It is how how we conceive of and find meaning in our own bodies, and locate ourselves within the millieu of meaning.  Human history is full of people fighting over words (consider current controversies about the use of pronouns) and this is why:  the social constructions have semantic force and so influence, even impose, on our sense of self.  The cost and pain of these fights, particularly as they relate to gender, is something that I can really only observe and seek to understand:

Take for instance, the feminist movement.  A certain socially normative sense of “feminine” which encapsulated notions of weakness, passivity, or intellectual inferiority, was rightly rejected.  A strong contingent of unashamed women refused to agree that such semantics should inevitably, invariably, or ever at all refer to them.  Through various forms of persuasion and social action the social norms were shifted (and could still shift some more) and this in turn has shifted our understanding of femininity, demolishing gender distinctions where those distinctions were meaningless or unjust, and delivering a larger degree of freedom to those who are physically female.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of self, the referent biological sex differences were strengthened (“I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!”) and the semantic gender differences were redefined, minimised, even eliminated.

The complexity of transgenderism is that it approaches self-meaning from the other direction, beginning not with biological sex, but locating primary meaning in the sense of gender – as masculine or feminine or of neither or both senses.  Semantics that derive from the physical sex are de-constructed, leaving the self-and-socially-constructed semantics as the primary source of meaning.

As this meaning is applied back into the physical world, the meaning of gender collides with its physical referent, manifesting as a disconnect between meaning and reality, and reflected in our language. The linguistic progression is this: a reference to “a man who feels like a woman” (a description) becomes semantically equivalent to “a man who is a woman” (a contradiction) becomes semantically equivalent to simply “a woman” (as a disconnected label, an arbitrary nomenclature).  At this point it is entirely logical, albeit ethically perplexing, to make physicality conform to the semantic construct.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of selfthe referent biological sex differences are redefined, minimised, even eliminated, and semantic gender differences are constructed and absolutised.

Much more could be said about the complexities, inconsistencies, and contradictions that this creates within a human community.  Suffice it to say that I find myself exhorting for the importance of physicality.  The irreversible modification of one’s body to conform with a self-and-socially-defined semantic of gender seems to me to be a fraught and ultimately unfruitful quest for meaning.  It would seem to me wiser and more compassionate to affirm the complexity of the sex-gender dynamic, and embrace and include whatever we might mean by the “feminine male” or the “masculine woman” or the interwoven complexity of gender expressed constructively and joyfully in male and female bodies.  I think the Scriptures have some beautiful light to shine on and guide such an exploration.

What has intrigued me, however, in engaging with Emma Percy’s article, is how the semantics of her discourse correlate closely with the semantic direction (and ultimate disconnect) of transgenderism itself.  As she broadens her application of Acts 8 from intersex to transgender she buys into the semantics.  Her rhetoric moves from her earlier, grounded, positive kerygma and becomes that of unanswered questions and provocative exhortations that are built upon her own theological constructs.

eunuchsemanticsEven the meaning of the eunuch shifts, from the historical physicality of the Acts narrative into her own semantics of gender.  The progression is clear: The eunuch’s physical referent is initially explored and carefully correlated to other physicalities, but then subsumed into a mere metaphor of “liminal gender.”   Once captured into Percy’s theological world, the historical figure is is not actually needed and could quite literally (and ironically) be “cut off” from the argument.

theologicalsemanticsThe correlation between positions taken in the gender identity debate and theological process shouldn’t surprise.  It’s not for no reason that such issues have become the touchstone of theological divides!

Like all quests for meaning, theological method will find itself engaging with the revealed world of Scripture and the general truths of science and common sense.  Semantics and interpretation will play their part as social assumptions and hermeneutical lenses are applied.  Some methods emphasise the biblical referent as the primary source of meaning.  And others will look to the socially-and-self-constructed semantics.  It seems to me that Percy’s framework is doing the latter, following the same semantic course as transgenderism: deconstructing the referent, and locating meaning in that which is socially-and-self-constructed.  She juxtaposes ecclesial norms (marriage, baptism, the gender of Jesus) with the semantic force of gender fluidity.  The hanging question and the wondering implication embraces the deconstruction.

That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  Genuine inquiry uses the semantic space to explore mystery.  There’s a lot to like in Percy’s essay and it has helped my own exploration.  But it does bring to bear the issues of theological language, and whether I am understanding what Percy is meaning.  Consider a word like “inclusion”, which is important enough to be in Percy’s sub-title, and which I affirm as a gospel imperative.  Does Percy mean it the way I mean it?  Or is it empty language which can only be inhabited with meaning if I share and agree with her constructed semantic?  Perhaps the answer is simply more dialogue, but the risk of cross-purposes remains significant. The fact that I need to ask these semantic questions reveals my fear: that we are more and more a church with a shared language, but a disparate sense of meaning, with separate methods of exploring the mysteries of this world that cannot easily be shared.

9780801097713Like churches themselves, there’s a tendency for those of us in pastoral ministry (ordained and lay) to become self-referential; the aim of a “good” pastor is just to be good at it, for some insipid definition of “good” and indistinct definition of “it.”  As an older priest once told me when I was young and green when I asked about his aims in ministry, it was simply “to survive, Will, to survive.”

I know what he means now.  Sometimes the vocation becomes merely a lurch of survival from Sunday to Sunday on a merry-go-round of meetings and rotas.  It can look like duty and diligence and all manner of virtuous things, but it’s hardly the stuff of a world-changing gospel.

All of us in ministry need an occasional reordering, a return to a sense of vocation that cuts across the self-referential malaise and gets us looking Jesus-ward again.

Vanhoozer’s and Strachan’s The Pastor as Public Theologian is a book for such a reordering.  It aims to “reclaim a lost vision” and does so in a way that is not just timely but also (as Eugene Peterson claims on the cover) urgent.  Personally speaking, it has been a long time since I have read a book throughout which I have exclaimed “Yes!” and “That’s right!” and “This! Absolutely this!”

The authors begin by decrying the tendency to dislocate theology from the work of on-the-ground ministry by relegating it to the academy.  The separation of “practical” and “theological” is truly a false dichotomy.  With my background in both Pentecostal and Reformed streams it’s one that I have flailed against.  It is why I have sometimes described my framework for ministry as that of an “applied theologian.”  Application and theology go together.

We are reminded that the straitjackets of this dichotomy are still prevalent.  Expectations on the pastor take the shape of counsellor, business analyst, sociologist, manager, entertainer, or educator.  It’s these expectations that creep into board meetings, “action planning,” and even (if they happen at all) times of prayer.

The book has been edited to include a number of short “pastoral perspective” chapters from other contributors.  One of them, Gerhald Hiestand, wonderfully describes this malaise by recognising that pastors are often “swimming against the current of the atheological swamp that is contemporary evangelicalism.” (p29).

In this way, Vanhoozer and Strachan are not just writing to pastors, they are also writing to churches.  The reordering they stimulate is not just about church leaders, but about the nature and shape of the church itself.

Theology is in exile and, as a result, the knowledge of God is in ecclesial eclipse.  The promised land, the gathered people of God, has consequently come to resemble a parched land: a land of wasted opportunities that no longer cultivates disciples as it did in the past. (pp1-2)

We are writing to you, churches, because you need to be encouraged to rethink the nature, function, and qualifications of the pastors whom you appoint to serve you… We also think you need to reclaim your heritage as a theological community created by God’s Word, and sustained by God’s Spirit, and to remember that you are part of God’s story, not that God is part of your story (pastor-theologians ought to be able to help you with this!). (p2)

The key phrase used throughout is the double-barrelled “pastor-theologian.”  It usefully interacts with their fundamental concerns about the false dichotomy.  But it is an awkward phrase with no clear scriptural anchor point.  There are some other words which might better serve the purpose.

For instance, the work of the “pastor-theologian” is the work of a missionary.

The word “missionary” has its own baggage, of course, but it makes clear that whenever Vanhoozer and Strachan describe a pastor-theologian in action, they actually end up dealing with missiological issues.  They end up discussing the demonstration and application of the gospel in the shifting culture of the real world.  This is necessarily theological work; how else do you apply the gospel but by first understanding it?  And it is also countercultural work; how else do you apply the gospel but by finding the touchstone points where it pushes back and has something different to say?

Missionary language would have helped the authors as they show us the challenges of this work. Missionaries understand the difficulty of articulating and demonstrating the application of the gospel in the real world.  They know that the countercultural gospel, when filled with the theological richness of Christ’s death and resurrection, will always be resisted, passively or otherwise.

Make no mistake: it is not easy to go against the cultural grain, and in a real sense, the faithful pastor will always be a countercultural figure: what else can pastors be when they proclaim Christ crucified and then ask disciples to imitate their Lord by dying to self? (p3)

The flock of Jesus Christ is threatened not by lions, bears, or wolves (1 Sam 17:34-35) but by false religion, incorrect doctrine, and ungodly practices – not to mention “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12 KJV). Consequently, pastors who want to be out ahead of the congregations must be grounded in the gospel and culturally competent.  Public theologians help people understand the world in which they live and, what is more important, how to follow Christ in everyday as well as extraordinary situations. (p23)

In this aspect of pastor-theologian as missionary I particularly valued Melvin Tinker’s short contribution which is a missiological reflection with respect to the UK.  Reflecting on a “Babylonian captivity” in English culture, he describes symptoms that I am coming across in my current context:

The nature of the “captivity” shows itself… by relativism in public and private ethics, valuing people by their looks and work, secularization with the marginalization of religion in public life (“privatization”).  Taken together, the Christian certainly feels like an alien and is alienated.  The gap between what is believed and how it can be practiced (without guidance) can reach cavernous proportions in people’s minds, and so the temptation to capitulate to the world by privatizing religion is strong. (p62)

Secondly, it would have been more helpful for “pastor-theologian” to be understood in terms of the five-fold ministry, and particularly with regard to the apostolic.

The five-fold ministry of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher is unpacked by Paul in Ephesians 4.  These are gifted roles which have the purpose of “building up the body” to maturity in Christ.  Vanhoozer and Strachan explicitly apply the same function to the pastor-theologian who has the work of “growing persons, cultivating a people” (p125).

I would have thought it would have therefore been more helpful to interact closely with these five offices.  Rather, although the teaching, pastoral, prophetic, and evangelistic work of the pastor-theologian are all teased out at one point or other, it is an implicit correlation.

Instead, they fill the phrase “pastor-theologian” theologically by exploring its ambassadorial nature which “participates” (p48) in the “prophet, priest and king” (p39) offices of Christ’s new covenant ministry.  This is helpful, but in sum it most readily describes an apostolic form of ministry; the apostolic ministry is inherently representational of Christ (“as the Father sent me, so I send you”, John 20:21) and, in practice, informs, guides and demonstrates the missiological exercise of the other four.

Apostolic ministry is also marked by a kenotic (self-emptying) character that carries the church, in her suffering and adversity.  This is a characteristic that Vanhoozer and Strachan pick up and apply to the “pastor-theologian”:

Here is the central paradox: the pastor is a public figure who must make himself nothing, who must speak not to attract attention to himself but rather to point away from himself – unlike most contemporary celebrities.  The pastor must make truth claims to win people not to his own way of thinking but to God’s way.  The pastor must succeed, not by increasing his own social status but, if need be, by decreasing it. (pp13-14)

The prophet did not generally minister from a position of earthly power but rather by entering into the people’s suffering. (p46)

The pastor images the old-covenant priest by modeling for the church a set-apart life.  This righteous model is designed to inspire, edify, and if necessary critique the people – all for the sake of encouraging them to pursue the Lord with zeal so that they too may be transformed.  The pastor is no more (or less) righteous than the people.  Ministry does not scrub away personal imperfections and weaknesses, but rather magnifies them, drawing pastors to first lay claim to divine grace before ministering it to their people. (p51)

Pastoral leadership ought to march to the beat of a different world-defying drummer, participating in Christ’s kingship by personifying the cruciform wisdom of God. (p54)

In the end the authors rest the theological task (and hence its doxological, liturgical, didactic, and pastoral expressions) of the pastor-theologian on something fundamentally epistemological and Christ-centred.  It is a “ministry of reality” (p108), a communication “in word and deed, in person and work, [of] the reality of the new resurrection order: the renewal of human being” (p107) and of culture.  Whatever really is, is in Christ, and is therefore known in him.

There is a touching point for this in my own Anglican context.  Vanhoozer and Strachan’s reordering of vocation brings us continually back to consider time again that which is in Christ.  Our ministry is formed and shaped by what is in Christ because what is in Christ is fundamental reality, an epistemological fixed-point in space-time.  Moreover, “Scripture alone provides an authoritative account of what is in Christ (p114).”  A shared scriptural epistemology is therefore essential not only to the building up of the church (because what is in Christ is the rich common ground of true koinonia) but consequentially essential to the unity and collegiality of pastors themselves.  As I have reflected on in other places, this is at the heart of current Anglican disagreements.

It is clear that I resonate with the vision that Vanhoozer and Strachan attempt to reclaim.  After all, this blog is called “Journeyman,” which also alludes to a “jack-of-all-existential-trades” (p104) vocation!  I’d be happy for that to mean for myself, to be “in some sense a public theologian, a peculiar sort of intellectual, a particular type of generalist.” (p15)  I am with Kynes (another minor contributor to the book) who recognises that theology is not dead, but living.  Its appeal is both affective and cognitive.  It is “truth, goodness, and beauty” (p134).

This beauty excites me, it drives me to prayer.  It lingers when I think of the society and community in which I am now placed.  It is the beauty of our Saviour who gave himself for this world.  It is the beauty of God’s rag-tag people.  It is the beauty of the new life to which this world is called.  It is worth a lifetime of effort.