Reflections on Rowan Williams’ visit to St. Louis University


When I found out in mid-February that my favorite living theologian, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and current head of Magdalene College at Cambridge, was giving lecture at St. Louis University, I was excited to make the 3+ hour drive along I-70 from Indianapolis. It’s not everyday that an Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Mid-West, let alone one whose writing and devotion has had such an impact on my own religious life.

Image result for rowan williamsDr. Williams’ lecture, entitled Christ, Creator and Creature: Reflections on Christology and the Nature of Created Being, began by summarizing the work of Austin Farrer, who Williams described as “certainly the most important Anglican theologian of the 20th century.”  (Farrer taught at Oxford in the mid-twentieth century and was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings.) This first section of the lecture focused on the metaphysics of Farrer’s works, especially The Glass of Vision. Here, Farrer shows that there need not be any competition or hostility between divine and human agency, between infinite being – what we call God – and finite being – us.

Through this non-competitive framework of Infinite and finite agency, Farrer says we  have a key to understanding certain paradoxical tenets of Christianity – grace and human free will, the efficacy of prayer, and the two natures of Christ. During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Williams was asked to expand on this idea as it applies to prayer. We shouldn’t view prayer as us doing business with another agency that we can bend to our purpose, but instead, take the more contemplative view that prayer is about being open to God’s will and purpose just as the Son is eternally open to the will of the Father.

Williams went on to discuss the development of the Christological doctrines, what he called the Church’s continual clarification of the nature of Christ and but also of God. He noted that the early church often reached for ideas and understanding found in the Hebrew Scriptures – of heavenly beings coming down to mediate God’s will – like Michael the Archangel or the High Priest Melchizedek. But the Church also soon realized that this language was not enough, and the conflicts that arose in the 4th and 5th centuries – the condemnation of Arius’ teaching, the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon – all which may seem so technical and arid, were important so that when we say Jesus was God, we must can mean nothing less than God, the very ground of being and agency.

Dr. Williams ended his talk by considering the Lectures on Christology (1933) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom, Dr. Williams was quick to point out, the question of Christology was anything but an academic exercise. Specifically, Bonhoeffer says that if we take seriously the notion of that the Church is Christ exsisting as community, then the non-competiative relation between the Divine and human, which was real in Jesus, will also be real in the Church. This connects Christology with our sacramental theology.

Dr. Williams explained, “Because God needs no defense, God’s human form is defenseless. So if we live in the Body of Christ and the mode of our human existence is shaped by that, then the defenselessness of Christ is the mark of the Church.” Williams argues that in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the very technical and sometimes dense language of Infinite and finite agency becomes, dramatically, an ethic and ecclesiology for our time.  If we can begin to understand this, Dr. Williams said, we the Church may be “more free, more able, even more eloquent, in telling the world that the God who made the world, loves it and is a God who is in no sense afraid of its flourishing, and whose eternal purpose is fixed on its joy.”

Matthew Stevenson, May 9, Feast of St. Gregory of Nazianus



Winter reading 2017

IMG_1463Our national politics may oscillate between terrifying and depressing, and the dumpster fire that is the IU basketball season is about to flicker out (have you filled out your NIT bracket??) but I still have some good books and a small child who likes to nap on me, so life is pretty great. My ancient Barnes&Noble Nook, which primarily sees action when I travel, is very handy for reading a 400 page novel while balancing a baby. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed this winter.

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – Heard about it on Fresh Air, and true to form this book is engrossing (hah! NPR-based puns score double, I think?) Fascinating, vaguely terrifying, and unfortunately timely.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl – I’m always on the lookout for good Steampunk – that is something more than re-hashed adventure stories with a veneer brass and leather – and when I find one, I talk about it for good while. Needless to say, Everfair is very good Steampunk – fresh, alternative history (set in the Belgian Congo), an impressive variety of interesting characters, and a grand scope leaving me wanting more time in this re-imagined world.

The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams So I drove 7 hours round trip to hear my favorite living theologian, Rowan Williams, speak at St. Louis University recently. It was a wonderful lecture (more on that later, I think). I hope I get to hear him again in person, but Archbishops of Canterbury rarely venture (quite rightly) to the Mid-West so, who knows? Anyway, I’ve read lots of Rowan Williams, but never his lovely treatment of my childhood love, CS Lewis’s Narnia books. (I absolutely wrote Narnia fanfiction as a child). There is a certain fashion among theologians to dismiss Lewis – and certainly not all of his works have held up well – but Williams rightly identifies the power of the Narnia series as not just a simple allegory of the Christian story (a reading which Lewis too rejected). Instead, Narnia is primarily about the joy of discovering God-in-the-world, a joy that Williams locates at the center of Christian life.




Catching up

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written in this space. For all my good intentions of maintaining something like regular posting here, work and family life have left little time for writing. Here’s the news.

I have two kids now, a girl and a boy! They are two years old and three months old, respectively. I may not have time to read as many novels as I once did, or to enjoy a meal that isn’t book-ended by changing poopy diapers, but I have become an expert on all aspects of life on the island of Sodor (which as far as I can tell, is a quasi-feudal dystopia where all economic, social, and political life is directed by the sinister Hatt family and put in service to the maintenance of obsolete, obstinate, and often extremely stupid steam engines) so that has to count to for something.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though there are plenty of challenges – mental, physical and financial – parenting these young kids is more joyful, more delightful, than I ever imagined.  I get the sense that every day is an adventure for my children and I am lucky enough to tag along with them (and occasionally be a horse to ride or a mountain to climb or a tickle monster to fend off).

Life at the library has been pretty good too. We recently acquired a bicycle and custom trailer/mobile library. We’re taking them to parks, the farmers’ market, summer festivals, bringing a small selection of the library to places and people who might not normally stop in. We also bring along a few tablets so we can demonstrate some of the digital services that the library provides. On a recent outing, we were joined by an impromptu escort of sorts, which one of my co-workers was good enough to capture. I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer riding around the streets and trails of Plainfield. cnl8ajhviaeyyyk-jpg-large
Somehow, I have managed to read a few good books unrelated to Sodor Railways.

I have been re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read them since high school. I’ve become such a softy. I cried when Frodo & company left the Shire, knowing how much they and the Shire would be changed when they eventually return. I’m not sure what my emotional state will be when I arrive at the end of the story but I wasn’t expecting this when I pulled it off the shelf.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton. Ok, so that Cheeky Little Engine is so ingrained in my mind that even when I read an adult novel, I turned to a story about trains. It was delightful though.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novak is great fun, combining the Napoleonic Wars and dragons. Novak is a fantastic writer, creating great characters and seamlessly weaving  fantasty world-building with historical fiction.

The Expanse series by James SA Corey. The Syfy Channel did a pretty good job of adapting the first book of the series, Leviathan Wakes, but the books are some the best science fiction out right now.

In other news: I built a table in my basement to display part of my LEGO collection. I am not a carpenter. When I finished, I realized that the table was not quite square but 1) it is quiet large and 2) it will probably not collapse so, that’s good enough for me. My daughter is old enough to not eat every LEGO in sight (this is an important developmental milestone) so she enjoys playing with my collection, and when I say ‘playing’ I mean scattering carefully sorted trays of bricks far and wide. But, literally everything she does is adorable, so I am happy to indulge her.


The planets in their courses …

For the last several weeks, the Sunday Mass at the Cathedral has included the oft-neglected Eucharistic Prayer C, the so-called Star Trek Prayer. In all my time at the Cathedral, we’ve never used this option. (There are four Eucharistic Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer; prayers A and B are used most often and D, my very favorite, is usually reserved for the Easter Vigil.)

I admit I was less than enthusiastic about Prayer C; it has a different cadence than the others, sounds dated, rather than timeless like the other prayers, and it’s a little odd hearing the phrase “vast expanse of interstellar space” in a Eucharistic Prayer. However, Prayer C has grown on me. The news the last few weeks has been full of images from the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto. 3 billion miles away, New Horizons is sending back absolutely stunning images of that distant world. Did you know the two Voyager spacecraft, launched in the late ’70s, are still sending data and responding to commands, even as they both have now left the solar system and crossed into interstellar space? I’ve been browsing through the pictures NASA has released this week and well as reading from Jim Bell’s new book about the Voyager mission – The Interstellar Age and thinking about those words of thanksgiving. It is truly good and right to give thanks to God for “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”

Books on Trains

I recently had the opportunity to take a train to Oregon, a 40 hour journey. Most might balk at the thought of trundling along at 70 mph, making stops every hour or two along the way, and occasionally getting delayed by freight trains stuck in tunnels, but I’ve come to enjoy train travel, limited though it is for those of us not living in the Northeast. I read 4 books on my trip – all dutifully loaded onto my Nook via Overdrive beforehand – and I’d like to review two of them here.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

I read this book, published in 1983 (making it nearly as old as I am, being, as it were, published in 1982) because it was suppose to be ‘steampunk‘. It was most definitely not steampunk, but no matter – The Anubis Gates was absolutely thrilling, difficult to put down, and very likely the best novel I’ve read this year. Even 30 years on, Tim Powers’ masterfully woven story of time travel, sorcerer-magicians, Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, demented clowns and long-dead gods, all perfectly blended with bits horror and humor, still makes for a grand adventure.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This is the fifth of Eco’s novels I’ve read and each time I pick one up, I get the same overwhelming sense – like drowning by book. But I should really should have more faith in Eco by now because undoubtedly 50 pages in, I’m totally hooked. Such was the case with The Prague Cemetery. Eco is a gifted storyteller, bringing alive history, philosophy, theology and more, in stories that, while complex, reward careful reading. The protagonist – Simone Simonini, a raging anti-Semite – is thoroughly repulsive but captivating nonetheless.

Currently reading: Fiction

I’ve been poking around various books the last month or so looking for a novel that would really draw me in. Within a day, I found two – each quite different, but both examples of real quality and exciting futures within their respective genres.

The first, Clash of Eagles by Alan Smale, is an alternative history of the Roman Empire expanding to North America in the 13th century. Smale doesn’t really give details about how the Roman Empire lasted 800 years later than it did in reality, but don’t let that bother you. The story he’s telling is plenty entertaining even without a clear point of divergence that normally establishes the alternate history genre. Though I live only a few hours away from the site of the Mississippian city of Cahokia (near St. Louis), my knowledge of that pre-Columbian culture is next to nothing.  So there was an element of discovery and learning with each chapter. I give Smale credit for the inventive juxtaposition of Native American vs. Roman, which as far as I can tell, is genuinely different from other alternate histories. The story is pretty straight forward, but full of great battle sequences and excitement building toward two more as-yet-unwritten installments.

The second book that grabbed my attention was The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner, with its beautiful prose and interesting characters. The story is narrated by Cordelia Kings, heir to the family lobstering business, struggling to preserve her family’s way of life. I loved the story’s setting – Loosewood Island, straddling the US/Canadian border – and all it’s accompanying mythology. The island is really another character in this intense (Shakespearean, even!) family drama , which you may know, is a favorite trope of mine.

Searching for Sunday review

Sometimes I find myself smiling when I think back 10 years ago, sitting across the table from a stern-faced Elder who told me straight up that my “eternal soul was in jeopardy” because I was questioning the role of women in the Church. Specifically, that women had a role in the Church. Say what you will, but this guy never beat around bush or left any room for ambiguity. Women couldn’t be leaders in the church. Period. Any visible role – even public reading of Scripture or passing communion trays – was de facto leadership. Period. Therefore, these actions were the exclusive, God-ordered realm of men (and select boys whose consciences were sufficiently bothered by thoughts of eternal hellfire that they got baptized at age 6.) Period. After subsequent meetings with the whole board of Elders failed to assuage my doubts, I was asked to leave, which was a bit traumatic at the time, but looking back, was in fact, a blessing.

About a year or so later, I was regularly attending an Episcopal Church, and received communion for the first time outside of the church I was raised in, and from the hand of a female priest no less. Another year or so still, and the Rt. Rev. (and awesome) Catherine Waynick, Bishop of Indianapolis, would lay hands on and pray over me, confirming me in the faith, and receiving me into the Episcopal Church. So anyway, I smile now when I think back to that Sunday afternoon.

I admit to being a little jealous of Rachel Held Evans. She and I are close in age, and faced similar crises of faith as young20150414_110347 adults. When confronted with questions and doubts about biblical inerrancy, literal readings of Genesis 1, theodicy, salvation and more, she wrote a book and started a blog, tackling these issues head-on and with more humor, grace and style than I could ever muster. Her new book, Searching for Sunday, follows in line with her other work – thoughtful, smart, candid, funny and all with her distinctive voice shining through. Like I said, I’m jealous.

My jealousy aside, the first thing I liked about Searching for Sunday was Rachel’s decision to structure this book around the sacraments. Though we usually associate talk of sacraments with the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Evans makes a good point that nearly all Christian traditions hold that God can be encountered in and through the physical. Most churches have some sacramental understanding of even if they don’t often use that word. Her vignettes at the start of each section could be should be republished as a teaching aid for catechumenate classes. When people ask why I ended up in the Episcopal Church, I say, “the sacraments, the historic liturgy and Book of Common Prayer, the sacraments, the middle way of Anglicanism, the sacraments, women in leadership, the sacraments, my questions are welcomed, have I mentioned the sacraments?  Water, bread, wine, oil, incense, bowing, kneeling, touching, saying – all become, within the community of the church, conduits of God’s grace and salvation.

When my faith had become little more than an abstraction, a set of propositions to be affirmed or denied, the tangible, tactile nature of the sacraments invited me to touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life again….[the sacraments] reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church. [p. 18]

The other thing I greatly appreciated about this book – and Rachel has taken some heat for this, which, frankly, baffles me – is the esteem she holds for the people and churches that formed her faith early in life, even as she wrestled with serious questions along the way. Some have read this book as a denominational spat, evangelical vs. mainline. This is a serious mischaracterization of the book. [Confession: I smiled and gave a little ‘Woo, TEC’ when I first read, a month or so ago, that Rachel and Dan were regulars at an Episcopal Church.] But my blithe denominationalism isn’t found in Rachel’s book. Again, my jealousy. I’ve wrestled for the last 10 years with how to honor the places and people who first taught me about Jesus and Bible, who baptized me, prayed for me, formed me in ways I likely haven’t yet processed.

I realize I can no more break up with my religious heritage than I can with my parents. I may not worship in an evangelical church anymore or even embrace evangelical theology, but as long as I have an investment in the church universal, I have an investment in the community that first introduced me to Jesus. Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the game. [p.196]

Besides being jealous, I am glad Rachel Held Evans wrote this book. As she’s discovered through her blog, her experiences of doubt are shared by many, many people. She’s brave for sharing these stories with us and working through a process of moving forward – doubts still with us, for sure – with integrity and hope.