From the Dean

News items, published articles, and reading recommendations from Dean Timothy George

The Dean Recommends: Why You Should Read Marilynne Robinson

By Peter Adam
May 5, 2015

Marilynne Robinson is an American author whose books express her humane theism with sympathy and imagination. Her four novels are Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer prize, and Home the 2009 UK Orange prize for fiction. Of these, Gilead, Home, and Lila are complementary, in that they describe the same group of people in two families from the perspectives of three different members of that group. The people are ordinary, but the description and narratives are extraordinary. Each person shines with clarity, and the progress of their lives is described in powerful detail. Because of the place and time in which they live, their lives could be described as quiet, but the narratives are sustained by intensity of observation and reflection. Simone Weil commented that in fiction evil people are interesting, and good people are boring, whereas in real life, good people are interesting and evil people are boring. Marilynne Robinson has the extraordinary gift of evoking good people as interesting in her fiction. And it is her humane theism which enriches her writing, as does her perceptive sympathy for the lives of ordinary people. She shows how people are shaped by early experiences and background, and how people grapple with the givens of their lives.

Marilynne Robinson has also written books of essays, in which she articulates the values of her humane theism. These include The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012).

These are remarkable, and each chapter is brief, powerful, and incisive. From The Death of Adam, I especially love her two chapters headed "Marguerite of Navarre" and "Marguerite of Navarre II". She begins the first of these with an apology, for the chapter is actually about John Calvin! She explains that if she had titled the chapter "John Calvin" many would not have bothered to read it! She explains why they would have responded this way, and then why they would have been wrong to reject or ignore such a significant and remarkable person. Her cultural appreciation of Calvin is powerful, and has led to a renewed interest in Calvin in North America in circles that have previously ignored or rejected him without knowing anything of him. The next chapter is an equally compelling appreciation of Marguerite of Navarre, a close contemporary of Calvin, and an equally extraordinary person. Read the rest at The Gospel Coalition Australia.

Posted by Kristen Padilla at Thursday, May 21, 2015
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The Dean Recommends: The Importance of Friendship

By Michael Haykin
May 18, 2015

The New Testament knows nothing of solitary Christianity. One of the great sources of spiritual strength is Christian friendship and fellowship. John Calvin, who has had the undeserved reputation of being cold, harsh, and unloving, knew this well and had a rich appreciation of friendship. The French Reformed historian Richard Stauffer reckoned that there were few men at the time of the Reformation “who developed as many friendships” as Calvin. Two of his closest friends were his fellow Reformers Guillaume Farel and Pierre Viret. Calvin celebrated his friendship with these men in his preface to his Commentary on Titus, where he stated:

I do not believe that there have ever been such friends who have lived together in such a deep friendship in their everyday style of life in this world as we have in our ministry. I have served here in the office of pastor with you two. There was never any appearance of envy; it seems to me that you two and I were as one person.

This brotherly friendship is well revealed in the extensive correspondence of these three men. In their letters to one another, not only are theological problems and ecclesiastical matters frankly discussed, but there is an openness in relation to the problems of their private lives.

Here is but one example: On Jan. 27, 1552, Calvin wrote to Farel and chided him for reports he had heard—true reports, one must add—about the undue length of Farel’s sermons. “You have often confessed,” Calvin reminds his friend, “that you know this is a fault and that you would like to correct it.” Calvin went on to encourage Farel to shorten his sermons lest Satan use Farel’s failing in this regard to destroy the many good things being produced by his ministry. Read the rest at Ligonier Ministries. 

Posted by Kristen Padilla at Wednesday, May 20, 2015
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The Dean Recommends: Prominent theologian finds joy amid incurable cancer diagnosis

By Jonathan Merritt
May 15, 2015

Photo courtesy of Western Theological Seminary

In a classroom in Holland, Michigan, a 39-year-old man in a bowtie stands to deliver a lecture. Peeking out from behind his glasses, he surveys the eager students who have come expecting a lecture on theology. Instead, he tells them that he has just been diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer.

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod research professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and author of several award-winning books such as The Word of God for The People of God and Union With Christ. After being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012, Billings and his wife decided to be open with others about his condition. But they didn’t know what they would learn through the process. The knowledge that he faces a “narrowed future” has raised fresh theological questions about life, death, and faith for Billings and taught him how to rejoice in the face of possible death. He has recorded his thoughts in a critically-acclaimed book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling With Incurable Cancer and Life With Christ. Here we discuss what he has learned and hopes to teach others in the time he has left.

RNS: How did being diagnosed with multiple myeloma raise new theological questions for you?

TB: The suffering that cancer brings can seem senseless. In the course of my chemo, hospital time and treatment, I knew other cancer patients who were beaten down by their cancer to the point of death. Why would God allow cancer to crush their God-given body? Where is hope for the families, and for the patients themselves? The suffering of cancer raises raw questions about God, life, and death. In this context, theological clichés are not enough. So, with new urgency, I dug deeply into Scripture: the Psalms, Job, the gospels, and Paul. How are we to respond to apparently senseless suffering? How can we affirm that God is King when children lose a parent to a mysterious disease? What does it mean to pray “thy Kingdom come” in a world that is a mess?

In exploring these questions, I found that an important part of my Christian vocabulary had been missing: lament.


RNS: How do you define lament and how is it related to praise?

TB: Biblical lament brings our grief and protest before the Lord in tenacious hope in God’s covenant promises. Nearly all Psalms of lament end in a declaration of trust and praise, after addressing God and bringing grief and protest to God.

Psalm 13 depicts this typical conclusion: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Of course, it starts out with protest: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Yet even complaints like these are rooted in trust, hope, and ultimately praise. The Psalmist has his eyes on God’s promises. God has promised to remember his people – so why does it now seem like God is forgetting? God has promised to show his face to his people – so why does his face now seem hidden? Because the psalmists take God at his word, they lament and wrestle with God when his word does not seem to be coming to pass. Read the rest at Religion News Service.

Posted by Kristen Padilla at Tuesday, May 19, 2015
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