Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Metaphorical Theology of Salvage

In 2005, I received a Doctorate in Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where I'd had the extraordinary opportunity to study with Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anna Carter Florence and others. I was in the "Gospel and Culture" program and focused a lot on preaching; part of that program included putting together a homiletics (aka "preaching") bibliography. During a sabbatical in 2003 I read over twenty-five books on preaching including people like Barth, Craddock, Lowery, Troeger, Tisdale and many others.

Included on that list and perhaps the most memorable book of them all for me was L.Susan Bond's Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching. I was so taken with that book that I urged my lectionary group at the time to read it so we could discuss it together. But I've seen little reference to it since then and in fact either misplaced my copy in a move, or more likely loaned it to someone on whose shelf it is now buried. (Shout out to Noel Bailey who was a member of that lectionary group and recently sent me her copy, which I just finished re-reading.)

What has stayed with me the most is what Bond calls "A Metaphorical Theology of Salvage." She explores Paul Auster's grim, apocalyptic novel, In the Country of Last Things as a way toward clarifying what she means by this metaphor. Bond writes:
The metaphor that I am suggesting here is similar to the root meaning of salvation, the Latin salvare. Salvare means to save, to deliver from sin, to protect or maintain. It also has medical connotations involving soothing or remedial agents for healing. Both metaphorical trajectories, deliverance and healing, have strong associations with the tradition...the metaphor of salvage has the same linguistic source as salvation but offers a more immediate physical image...
This metaphor leads Bond to a rich discussion of Auster's book - in fact her book on preaching led me to also purchase Auster's novel which I also recommend on it's own. As Bond notes, Auster is not writing from a religious perspective in The Country of Last Things. It is certainly not a "Christian" novel. In this "country of last things" however, the world offers stark differences: one is either part of the death business, highly organized by the government and those scavengers who collect waste materials to sell for fuel, or repair and sell. The heroine, Anna Blume, is a scavenger. Bond quotes these words from Auster's novel:
As an object hunter, you must rescue things before they reach this state of absolute decay. You can never expect to find something whole - for that is an accident, a mistake on the part of the person who lost it...What another has seen fit to throw away you must examine...and bring back to life...Everything falls apart but not every part of every thing, at least not at the same time. The job is to zero in on these little islands of intactness, to imagine them joined to other such islands, and those islands to still others, and thus to create new archipelagos  of matter.
I'm not going to quote the whole book here; you can probably see where this is going. And maybe why I'm thinking about it again, a dozen years down the road from when I first read these words. Bond revisits the classic Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen arguing for a new apocalyptic Christology rooted in the experience of the early Church. I still find her argument compelling and commend it to you but for now, just one more quote:
Success, for Auster's last country, is the resistance to death and its enterprise. The characters we grow to admire are ordinary folks who refuse to cooperate with the "kingdom of death" in any of its manifestation. They band together to devise strategies of resistance and subterfuge, refusing to grant death and its lackeys any satisfaction. Even the final death in the narrative is fraught with gospel reverberations. 
The place where this work happens is called Woburn House. Not surprisingly, Bond sees it as a metaphor for the Church, which in every generation is called to resist death and to salvage what can be salvaged of  this world. The work of those who live at Woburn House is humiliating; "they must touch and be in constant contact with the losers of the country of last things." But in so doing they embody hope.

For close followers of this blog you will note what I've been reading and thinking about lately: William Stringfellow and the Book of Revelation and Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers which focuses on the Domination System. Recently I agreed to teach an elder-hostel class next year on apocalyptic literature, specifically the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. I confess I was nervous in writing that description up, fearing that I'll scare away the very people I am hoping will sign up and attracting folks I'd rather not debate! But I'm going to give it a shot.

I'll be taking a three-month sabbatical this coming April, May, and June. We have some family travel plans and I'm looking forward to the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio. My reading list is to go deeper into these questions. You might be surprised (or maybe not!) at the looks I'm getting when people ask me about my sabbatical and I tell them I want to delve deeper into apocalyptic literature. But that is the challenge, isn't it? In many ways the progressive mainline denominations have abdicated responsibility for interpreting this genre of Biblical literature. So the Biblical literalist fundamentalist pre- and post- millennialists have gladly filled that void and we get Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. (I am NOT even going to hyperlink to them - stay away!)

In fact though, there is a reason that Daniel and Revelation are part of the Biblical canon - and when I was ordained I solemnly declared "that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation..." (BCP 526) There is that word again: salvation. I didn't cross my fingers when I said those words twenty-three years ago at Christ and Holy Trinity Church and think, "well, not Daniel and not Revelation."

I have come to believe we need that part of the story now more than ever. So this is the reading list I'm working on for the time apart that begins in just about six weeks. If you follow this blog you'll see more of this to come before and during and after my sabbatical. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment