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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Faith Speaking Understanding" (Kevin J. Vanhoozer)

TITLE: Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine
AUTHOR: Kevin J. Vanhoozer
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (298 pages).

Mention doctrine and there is a good chance that people would yawn. The central theme is that the world changes most when the Church stays the same, doctrinal, theologically, and faithfully. Even as the world spins itself dizzy in various directions, the Church can choose to be faithful and steadfast to the good old gospel story of the Old Rugged Cross of Jesus Christ. Using the metaphor of theatrical performance, Kevin Vanhoozer affirms the importance of doctrine as a necessary teaching in Churches and as a key part of discipleship. He takes a “high view” of Scripture that underlines the basis of all doctrinal discussions. Nine interrelated themes underline how the Church can become a living Bible.
  1. About Being Biblical
  2. About Theology
  3. About Church Doctrine
  4. About the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  5. About Life
  6. About the Reign of God
  7. About the Church
  8. About Public Theology
  9. About Reality

Theater as speak-acting is Vanhoozer’s way of transposing doers and hearers of the Word. He takes some time to explain that it is neither play-acting nor artificial behavior. Instead, it is the living out of the Word as doctrine and theology inform living. In other words, “Theatrical theology concerns faith speaking and showing understanding.” The drama of doctrine tells and shows us what doctrine is, what and how things are, and how one can live accordingly. It tells us what to believe (credenta), what to hope (sperenda), and what to do (agenda). Doctrine provides summary statements of Scriptural truths of the dramas behind, before, and of doctrine. Then there is the audience participation which is about the Church participating in the life of Jesus with God as the watching audience. Vanhoozer warns about erecting a “fourth wall” that can stand between leaders and congregation, but also between the church and the world. Such a wall can be passivity or incomprehensibility. Interaction and participation will cut through such an obstacle. True disciples will not only profess and proclaim, they will abide in Jesus always.

Where Part One is about setting the stage for theology and theater, and to argue for the place of doctrine speaking understanding, Part Two is about discipleship that leads toward faith speaking understanding. The author has a lot more to say about discipleship here. Beginning with the overall idea of how doctrine makes disciples, he paints for us the great drama to be played on earth, just like the way disciples prayed, “Your will be done in heaven as on earth.” God is Director. The Word is “stage manager.” The Church are the actors, and the Word forms the script. He cites four books which offer some reasons why doctrine has not been emphasized. He quotes Alan Wolfe’s work on how American religion has been transformed by culture. He mentions Christian Smith’s observation about Christians practicing a form of MTD (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) religion. He notes David Wells’s excellent work on how the Church has surrendered “sola scriptura” in exchange for “sola cultura.” Finally, he summarizes Harvey Cox’s work in terms of how the Church has become more interested in Christology rather than following Jesus. While experience is important, he laments at how the Church has over-reached herself to put experience at the center square instead of letting doctrine undergird the search for experience. Experience is important, but the Church must take heed of three dangers. 1) Danger of desiring an experience that is temporal; 2) Danger of searching for an experience based outside of Christ; 3) Danger of subscribing to market-driven techniques instead of gospel-led truth. What the Church needs is not more experience but discipleship. The concern for experience and the search for authenticity lies in the underlying desire to exercise self-authority and self-satisfaction. It puts the exercise of authenticity within the powers of self. It is because of the tendency of humans to become self-deceiving that we need doctrine to keep us in check. That is how the Word of God becomes the Lamp unto our feet and a Light unto our path. We go back to the doctrine of redemption that if we are not redeemed in the first place, we remain lost.

By the showing, we demonstrate our knowing. The themes of show business and entertainment are carefully used as a metaphor to describe how we can practice discipleship in our modern age. The great theatre of the world begins with creation, by asking why are things there in the first place? “All the world’s a stage” is not some sentence in William Shakespeare’s famous “As You Like It” play. It is also a statement of beginnings where it all plays out. It reminds us that things are originally created good, and we are given a fresh start in Jesus, the second Adam, and to live out our calling once again. Vanhoozer shows us the “triune drama of redemption” as he explains the new covenant beginnings plus the opportunities presented before us. He asks: “Without God, how can we do what is good? Without God, what becomes of meaningful, authentic human existence?” This first step is crucial for it emphasizes the truth that without God, we can do nothing. This is the drama “from above.” He writes about the different players like us, the world, and the evil principalities that surround us. This is the drama “from below.” Each step of the way, the author shows us what discipleship looks like as we play out the scenes on earth, from below. Through our practice of discipleship, we understand what discipleship is about.

The age old truth remains largely the same. Before we can show anything, we need to know something. Before we can understand more, we need to put into practice what we have already learnt. For there is no true learning until it is being put into play. This is why Vanhoozer’s book adopts the metaphor of a play to such powerful effect. In an age of YouTube, the Internet, and an increasingly visual and virtual world, the message as well as the medium is becoming increasingly important. McLuhan’s warnings about medium becoming the message need to be kept in mind to prevent us from uncritical adoptions of any metaphors or modern mediums. That is why I find Vanhoozer’s careful reminder of “A theologian is one who prays – and stays awake” is more important that one who “plays” and attempts to stay relevant. We need to know our bearings right from the start. That’s theology and doctrine. Through it, we know the roadmap and the script. We then need to find the actors and actresses to play out the scene. That is the Church, believers in Christ, and the mission ahead. With the constant ups and downs, twists and turns of any plot, we learn that the path of discipleship is not an easy path strewn with roses. There are lots of challenges.

I personally enjoy the way Vanhoozer weaves in theology, doctrine, and discipleship truths with the usage of drama, play, acting, and stage works. Naysayers may protest at using “worldly” symbols to showcase Christian discipleship. I think it is not necessarily so. For though we are not of the world, we are in the world. Our jobs are already a form of “acting” as we live out the roles of employer-employees, contracts fulfillment, and various supporting roles in any corporate team activities. Here are three reasons why this metaphor works. Firstly, it gives us a new way to appreciate theology. For all the efforts of the great scholars and theologians, there will always be a sizeable group of people who claim that theology is only for the academics, the scholars, and the ivory tower population. By giving us familiar images and terms, it helps us to appreciate the doctrines and the theological statements Vanhoozer lays before us. Secondly, it gives us a vivid appreciation of how theology is played out through practice in the world. Contrary to some comments that tend to put theology in a faraway land of theory and impractical knowledge, this book attempts to bridge the gap between theory and actual practice to enable us to see that true theology is truly practical. Some books are too difficult to understand that laypeople write them off by not even bothering to read or to understand any of them. Others are too simplistic, trying to be "practice-oriented" but lack the foundations of biblical knowledge and theology. Vanhoozer's work helps us to see the world of both, which gives laypeople a chance to appreciate the importance of theology, and for theologians to learn another way to put theology into action. Thirdly, it provides ample warnings of the dangers that come simply because the world we live in is dangerous in the first place. This is particularly so as there are increasingly more and more signs of troubles, wars, and tribulations on the horizon. Believers need encouragement to look forward to the coming Kingdom of God. Those suffering for Christ in different parts of the world will appreciate the need for hope amid suffering. Many others in comfortable societies will need to remember that the battle is often not outside but inside the heart.

Seminarians and theologians will find this book a fresh look at how theology can be put into practice. The rest of us will have a better appreciation how faith, theology, doctrine, and Christian living all work together to tell the same story of God's revelation to man, through Jesus Christ. Read this book through. It's rewarding for the soul.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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