(1) Tell us a bit of your story.
I became a Christian at the age of 12 at a camp run by independent, ‘non-denominational’ evangelical churches. From that time on I was always been in volunteer ministry, whether as a youth coach or a worship leader, and the church of my youth grow from about 80 to 800.
In the late nineties I began to engage postmodernism through popular Christian authors. First came Soul Tsunami by Leonard Sweet. I read Finding Faith by Brian McLaren a bit late. Thus began a seven-year deconstruction of my faith. I self-identified as part of the emerging church. I read voraciously. I started to ‘get’ why me and my friends, all dedicated to Christ, nonetheless were restless and dissatisfied with the churches and the Christianity that we grew up with. In some ways it felt liberating: I didn’t feel alone in my dissatisfaction. I was getting rid of all sorts of ‘bad faith’. In other ways it was intimidating: what would remain at the end of my deconstruction? Because everything I believed was under scrutiny, I had no idea what faith would look like or if it would exist at the end of the journey. I had confidence in what I did NOT believe, but I wasn’t sure of what I DID believe. I had a vague feeling that God wanted me to actually do something. When and how would I fit some ‘construction’ in? When I shared my anxiety with a good friend of mine, he casually quoted Ecclesisastes: “There’s a time to tear down, and a time to build.” It was a relief somehow.
A time to build would come.
One of the more dramatic events during this period in my life was that I was excommunicated from the church of my youth. Not only had my paradigm let me down…now I was actually being abandoned by my spiritual family. My skepticism was at an all-time high. I thought I still believed in the church, but I didn’t know where she was. I started to think that God had withdrawn his Spirit from the West. I tried to find another church, but most were pretty much the same. We explored a church with no name that met in a kickboxing studio. We tried home church. We tried staying at home and playing video games. I can think of no better word than ‘grace’ to describe how I avoided total cynicism regarding the church. Instrumental in that grace were these five authors: Brian McLaren, N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, William Cavanaugh and Stanley Hauerwas. After about a year of being ‘ecclesially homeless’, my family somehow fell into the liturgical tradition. We are a part of St. Alban’s, a small Episcopal church in Yucaipa, California. I just gave my first sermon as a lay witness.
In studying post-liberalism and the early church, I have come to see non-violent, self-giving, enemy-love at the heart of the gospel. I call myself a Christian anarcho-pacifist as my way of teasing out the implications of this discovery. I’m attempting to live simply and to peacefully participate in giving and receiving in community with all earth’s creatures.
Last year I left my job as a top-producing mortgage consultant to homeschool my kids, work for my wife’s photography business and to begin organic farming. I told my wife once that I now know why Jesus self-identified as ‘the way’ rather than ‘the destination’. He keeps taking me on new adventures.
(2) What has influenced your belief system?
I used to make my living as a rock musician. People would ask us what style we were or who were our influences. While I have my favorite music, we were literally influenced by everything. I was influenced by John Steinbeck and by shampoo commercials. Whether I liked it or not, it influenced me. I have come to think of faith that way.
Currently I’m reading a book on home-scale permaculture (Gaia’s Garden). This is heavily influencing me. Last night I watched Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. It’s influencing me. Post-liberalism has caused me to live at peace with my historical contingency, and even revel in it. So while I can critique postmodernism as simply late western modernism, I’m not unaware at how my habits of thought are culturally postmodern. In order to understand, I’m willing to ‘stand under’ a multitude of teachers and let them influence me. Engage critically, but engage.
(3) What book are you reading now, and why that one?
After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre. It’s not an easy read. I’m taking it on because of the influence MacIntyre has had on the five authors that I mentioned earlier (N.T. Wright’s newest book, for example).
Here’s a juicy bit I just read:
“Contemporary moral experience…has a paradoxical character. For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others. Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles and stand-point in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing others towards those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes and our experience arises from the incoherent conceptual scheme which we have inherited.”
He traces the history of this incoherence from contemporary philosophy back to the ancient world. This work is considered one of the most lucid deconstructions of western modernism.
(4) You just read The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong. What in the book would you say agree with?
I’m not sure I have the standing to agree or disagree with Ms. Armstrong. My areas of study have touched on historical criticism, but only in a very limited sense. It might make more sense to say what I liked about the book.
And I did like the book. Karen is obviously a great teacher. I wasn’t prepared for the historical scope. I guess I thought she would address the beginnings of the scriptures among those peculiar nomads in the middle east, but I didn’t know that she’d continue to trace developments all the way through the twentieth century. This is the strength of the book: it is an overview of the compilation and interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures covering about three thousand years. And she tells it in such a way that is almost like a novel. It’s a page-turner.
(5) What are some areas you might disagree with and why?
My favorite authors give me a sense of their struggle, a sense of their editorial choices. For example, in A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn is very forthright about his editorial choices. In a very different sort of book (A Severe Mercy), C.S. Lewis lays bare the vulnerability of his faith in the face of suffering. The Bible: A Biography may not have been a page-turning overview if Armstrong gave a full account of her historical vision, but I can’t escape the feeling that she’s simply good at teaching other people’s conclusions. I would have liked the book more if it didn’t pretend to objectivity, if it instead revealed the author’s own struggle and choices. I’m left wondering: is Karen Armstrong aware of her own historical contingency?
(6) Do you think Karen Armstrong has something to say to the Church (at large)?
It’s a shame that so many Christians have a ‘magical’ view of the scriptures. (It’s also important to note that this is not always the case in traditional churches; Pope Benedict and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams come to mind as church leaders who publicly engage historical criticism.) If I were teaching an introductory course on the history of the scriptures, I wouldn’t mind using this book.
However, I would want to balance it out with other works that address the theological and philosophical choices we make and why. Why do we think the way we do? History, theology, philosophy and politics were impoverished in the modern age by their isolation as separate disciplines, engaged only by ‘experts’. Zinn has demonstrated that history should be understood politically. Wright says that “Christianity appeals to history, so to history we must go.” Slavoj Zizek the atheist philosopher critically engages John Milbank the social critic…and both do theology.
When a theologian doesn’t understand ‘the history of theology’, or a historian doesn’t understand ‘the philosophy of history’ and so on, error is immanent. That Christians have a ‘magical’ view of the scriptures is not likely to be cured by historical facts, but rather by a wider engagement with other disciplines.
(7) Do you think she represents a scholarly version of the postmodern conversation?
I actually think that Armstrong is vulnerable to postmodern critique. As I said, she seems to speak from objectivity rather than historically contingency. And because ‘the postmodern conversation’ has collapsed the neat boundaries between the disciplines (history, ethics, science, theology, philosophy, the arts), I’m not sure Armstrong’s book has the breadth necessary to be considered scholarly in our context.
In 1996 Jack Miles won a Pulitzer Prize for God: A Biography. To me this symbolized the mainstreaming of a postmodern shift in regards to the scriptures. The prominent questions have become more broad than mere historical accuracy: “What kind of book is this? What does this have to say? Why is this book here?” It’s the difference between studying a frog by dissection and studying a frog by observing it in its natural habitat.
I’ve been participating in a course from The Teaching Company in which Amy Jill Levine teaches the Old Testament as myth, saga and history. I’ve been reading William Cavanaugh’s radical visions of Christianity (ironically not proposing anything very new, but rather born of a deep exploration of Church history). Zizek uses Lacanian Psychoanalysis to discuss how German toilets differ from French and American toilets. MacIntyre published After Virtue in 1981. In comparison to these, Armstrong’s book (published in 2007) seems neither very scholarly nor postmodern. In fact, it seems quite conservative, hearkening back to the time when history, like science, had its own inviolable corner of the truth.
(8) Anything else you would like to add/thoughts/critiques/questions/challenges
Because Armstrong doesn’t make explicit her viewpoint, I couldn’t help but detect what I thought was an implicit bias.
In her last chapter (“Modernity”) she reviews the thought of Michael Fishbane, Professor of Jewish Studies at Chicago University and author of The Notion of a Sacred Text. She quotes a passage from Fishbane where he presents Isaiah’s eschatological vision of all the nations converging on the city of peace, then another pasage where the prophet Micah talks about each nation going forward “each in the name of its own god.” Armstrong says: “It is almost as though Micah foresaw our own time of multiple visions converging on a common truth, which for Israel had been expressed by the idea of their god.” I thought the idea of mankind ‘converging on a common truth’ has been discredited by continental philosophy and postmodern deconstruction.
And what is the ‘common truth’ being offered to us? I can’t tell if Armstrong is quoting Fishbane approvingly or disinterestedly. But I can hazard a guess.
Armstrong seems delighted throughout her book when she writes of Jewish and Christian communities whose exegesis of scripture appears as proto-democratic liberalism. This thread of thought is thoroughly steeped in modernism. What does the Enlightenment mean, after all, but that Western Civilization has the true light…that we represent progress, peace and freedom? In the words of Francis Fukuyama, liberal democratic capitalism is “The End of History.” But what do you do if history refuses to stop?
In regards to Philosophy: The meta-narrative of history as progress and enlightenment has been discredited.
In regards to Theology: The belief that the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition was an appetizer for the prophets of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson is idolatry. In regards to Politics: This false universality shows no signs of culminating in Isaiah’s eschatological vision. Instead, it has led to violence and empire.
About Joey Aszterbaum, a failed rock star and banking burnout who lives on a small farm in San Jacinto with his wife Jolynne (a wedding photographer) their four children, two other small families. He loves Jesus, non-violence, homeschooling, movies, post-liberal theology and farm-fresh eggs. He blogs over at CharisManglican, check it out: http://www.Charismanglican.com