Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius // Ray Monk.

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“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train” (quoting Keynes, 255).

“Then the startling words; said Black, ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Professor Wittgenstein…’ Well, when Black said ‘Wittgenstein’ a loud and instantaneous gasp went up from the assembled students. You must remember: ‘Wittgenstein’ was a mysterious and awesome name in the philosophical world of 1949, at Cornell in particular. The gasp that went up was just the gasp that would have gone up if Black had said ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Plato…'” (quoting Nelson, 558).

Ludwig Wittgenstein was, as the above quotations betray, a towering philosophical giant in the 20th century — possibly, the greatest of his generation. In this fine, magisterial biography, Ray Monk details this illustrious yet tortured life.

Born into an lucrative family of immense wealth in Austria, young Ludwig displayed no early signs of “genius,” unlike his older siblings. Eventually, though, Ludwig would be possessed by his own “genius,” not of musical talent but of intellectual rigor. One could say that the impetus of Wittgenstein’s philosophical career is to learn how to say something clearly. Clarity was his obsession: “What can be said, can be said clearly” (credits to Michael Pierce’s YouTube, “Wittgenstein in a Nutshell”). This will be the extend of my summary of Wittgenstein’s thought (to be honest, this was the most arduous task of Monk’s book, personally speaking, not because Monk was unclear but the concepts were quite difficult to grasp).

Wittgenstein had a long list of friends-become-“fri-enemies.” This is due partly to his passionate, self-assertive nature and his incredulous reaction when learned people (e.g., professors of philosophy) cannot understand or grasp his self-proclaimed clear reasonings. On more than one occasion, Wittgenstein would storm out in frustration if he sensed his audience or interlocutor misunderstand and misappropriate his words and sentences. Yet, this is not to mean that Wittgenstein did not cherish friendships — but the very opposite. Yes, he would dominate most conversations about his own philosophical inquiries. Yes, he would, at times, escape the lurid, egoistic life of London to be isolated in Norway. But he would also regularly mail impassioned letters to old and new friends, watch movies (Westerns were his favorite), attend concerts, and go on long walks coupled with intimate conversations. Moments before he lost consciousness, he told his host-friend, Mrs Bevan (the wife of the doctor who treated during Wittgenstein’s last years), to tell his friends: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

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The Nonviolent Atonement // J. Denny Weaver.

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Inspired by John Howard Yoder and the pacifist tradition, J. Denny Weaver revisits in this second edition the perceived need for a “nonviolent atonement.” Incubated for more than 25 years of reflection, Weaver presents “Narrative Christus Victor” as the most comprehensive and faithful witness to the biblical text. Narrative Christus Victor is drawn from primarily the cosmic battle in Revelation and Jesus’ life and ministry in the gospels. In short, Narrative Christus Victor is (chiefly) against satisfaction atonement theories (especially an Anselmian bred), because any satisfaction based theory is “inherently violent.” This, in Weaver’s understanding, easily jumps to the egregious conclusion that God sanctions — therefore divinizes — violence. He corroborates Narrative Christus Victor with Black, Feminist, and Womanist critiques and theologies, though without accepting them wholesale. Weaver’s Narrative Christus Victor is certainly a great addition to nonviolent atonement and theology.

In my reading, however, Weaver is found wanting. Weaver’s stringent commitment to nonviolence seems to flavor his theology and readings of the scriptural text more than the overarching narrative of the Bible. Perhaps the “narrative” in Narrative Christus Victor is the narrative he “weaves” for himself? What’s more, his nonviolent commitment leads him to omit any divine will for Jesus’ death, which inevitably leads him to claim that sin is dealt with through forgiveness of sins — excluding the cross. The cross was an abrupt end at Jesus’ mission to witness to the kingdom. Yet, at the same time, the cross has cosmic significance: it unveils or reveals the true nature of evil and, thereby, breaks their grip. How this is done objectively is not satisfactorily answered.

Another and, in my opinion, far better Christus Victor account that is not afraid to face the cruelty, severity, shamefulness, and gruesomeness of the cross is Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion.

The Role of Women’s Experience in Feminist Theologies of Atonement // Linda D. Peacore.

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In 1960, Valerie Saiving sparked a controversy by critiquing some of the 20th c. theologians, Anders Nygren and Reinhold Niebuhr, and their androcentric theologies, which don’t always speak into or adequately of women — sometimes, even, against them. Feminist theologies and critiques against said theologies have burgeoned. The spectrum is wide, the map convoluted. To say “all feminists theologies are ____” betrays ignorance. Thus, nearly 50 years after Saiving’s seminal article, Linda D. Peacore surveys the various feminist trends and reactions, especially with regards to (arguably) the most central yet most criticized Christian doctrine by feminists in recent decades: atonement.

In a word, Peacore is very charitable, which, sorrowfully, is a lost virtue when entering conversations with feminists, womanists, Asian feminists, mujeristas, or any “controversial sides” one disagrees with. These thinkers and theologians are certainly worthy of fair, civil discourse and debate. This word, however, is not to say that Peacore is uncritical and relativist. In fact, her critique is sharper, precisely because she delved deeply into their assumptions and questioned the durability.

On the one hand, women’s experiences are what women drew from to rightly critique blatant androcentric theologies and oppressive interpretations. On the other, women’s experiences, especially how they are used as sole (key word!) source and norm, are volatile and individualistic. It is undeniable that experience has been and should be used as a source of theological imagination, however if it is given primacy above all else, then its theology will suffer limitations and blind-spots. Womanist (black feminists) theologians were the first few to bring some of these blind-spots to light when they critiqued feminist (often white, middle-class) theologies as being ignorant or dismissive of the racial elephant in the room. Just as modern Western theologies do not speak for global Christianity, one feminist theology does not speak for all women. Therefore, Peacore’s survey is welcomed.

Recovering the Scandal of the Cross // Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green.

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In the past few decades, scholarship has cycled back and forth into discussions about the cross, crucifixion, and atonement: criticism against the cross, criticism against criticisms, and more have flooded academia’s wetlands causing both demolished lands and fertile potentials. Some say the cross is too scandalous; others say not scandalous enough. Some say the crucifixion is too problematic; others say not problematic enough. Some say the atonement is much to be blamed for; others say the atonement actually unmasks the true perps. Unlike the doctrines of the two natures of Christ and the trinity, there was never an early great ecumenical council to hammer out (pun intended) what the cross did and meantThat it happened is unquestionable. What of it begs many questions.

Thus, Baker and Green try to untangle the frayed twine not of academia, per se, but of popular level understandings of atonement. Specifically in mind is a reductionistic understanding of penal substitution model — which currently dominates American Evangelicalism. So, they go back to Paul and the Gospels and the Western traditions in survey form and find that popular level understanding of the penal substitution is not “the clearest and most self-evident” reading. Rather, that sort of understanding is a tradition that stems from Charles Hodge, who privileged Western legal court room context. Baker and Green, however, do not throw out the baby with the bathwater but espouse that a kaleidoscopic understanding the cross-event is wanted, even penal substitution. In fact, most of the problematic features of atonement theories (which many critics have pin-pointed) come from a narrow, limited, one-size-fits-all approach to atonement. Baker and Green argue that there never was and that there never should be just one atonement theory, but theories.

This is a great introduction to modern discussions about the atonement.

The Crucifixion // Fleming Rutledge.

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This book is phenomenal. There have been very few books that I have come across where from cover to cover it has been rejuvenating, refreshing, and powerful. Despite being one of the most elusive doctrines, Fleming Rutledge has produced a masterpiece on atonement. Formerly, Rutledge has worked on this manuscript for 18 years, but really it is the fruit of a life-long wrestle with the cross of the Crucified Lord. And though some might withhold enthusiasm about a non-academic (strictly speaking, a non-PhD holder — though one might need reminding that the West’s theological giants, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and even our 20th century Karl Barth, never held doctorates) writing a hefty (600+ pages) theological treatise, caveat lector: this is substantial and monumental treatise.

What follows is a sorrowfully short sketch; the present writer, instead, hopes the present reader (you) will just buy and read it.

After a long list of endorsement from significant theologians of our time, Rutledge begins. The book is divided into two unequal halves: (1) socio-historical and literary analysis of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and (2) biblical motifs of the crucifixion. Rutledge draws from the climatic well of apocalyptic interpretation, specifically thanking Ernest Käsemann. In short, apocalyptic interpretation argues that starting during Babylonian exile (or some time later), there arose an insistence that the God of Israel is “breaking into” the world in new “revelatory” (apocalyptic) ways that expose and destroy the cosmic forces of Evil and Sin — the apex being the crucifixion — and, thus, execute and establish justice through the dikaiosyne theou (“righteousness of God”). The foremost apocalyptic forerunner was none other than Apostle Paul. This apocalyptic framework fits well with Christus Victor. However, unlike Gustav Aulén, Rutledge incorporates in kaleidoscopic fashion a surplus of other motifs — not theories.

I conclude with her own words:

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is the perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present evil age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan — on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Christ Jesus (611).

At Home in Exile // Russell Jeung.

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The grandeur of this autobiography is not the grand things Russell has done or experienced (as jaw-dropping as some of them are). No, rather, it is his candor and glee. Russell, it seems to me, does not seem obliged to write an embellished, poetic lore of his conquests and defeats. Instead, he slips in “dad jokes” (at least, I would categorize them as such or “professorial jokes”) here and there — not taking himself too seriously. What he does take seriously are the joys and sorrows of his life with his community — Oak Park and his family. The first half is dominated by OPM (Oak Park Ministry) and the second half his nuclear family: the highs and lows of each. The highs are definitely eye-opening wonders, but the lows are heart-wrenchingly painful. And such are the stuff of life.

Russell, whether with intention or not, seems to tug at Asian American Christian (particularly Evangelicals) hearts. Though he did not blow out of proportion the prestigious sacrifices he made (such as going to Stanford for undergraduate but devoted a bulk of his life living with the marginalized in mold and roach infested apartments and turning down two promising academic careers to be with his church’s community), any Asian American pressured by the model minority myth will be keen on these sacrifices, especially. I doubt Russell shared this to make us feel guilty or shamed (even more than we might already feel!), but to offer his life as one example of a non-model-minority Asian American Evangelical (though the other extreme to avoid is moralistic Asian American Evangelicals…!).

Towards the end, he seems to make a Christian endorsement of Confucian systems (esp, food and sacrificial forms of love). This isn’t to say Confucianism must be adopted by Asian/Asian American Christians, nor that it is 100% sanctified. No, Russell seems to say that Confucianism affected his life in more ways than one, which God graciously adopted and used to sanctify him and his community.

The other motifs Russell used, exile and hakka, are worthy of further reflection. But, alas, this post is already too long.

Retrieving Doctrine // Oliver D. Crisp.

With analytic clarity and fastidiousness, Retrieving Doctrine offers an eclectic collection of essays in Reformed Theology by Oliver D. Crisp, a forerunner in analytic theology. The classic “greats” of the Reformed Tradition, such as Calvin, Edwards (and Barth, if one classifies him as such!), and some lesser known are critically and graciously engaged over complex and easily confused (and often misconstrued) issues concerning each theologian. For example, Edwards and the metaphysics of imputation of sin, Calvin on petitioning the foreknowing God, Barth’s paradoxical denial of universalism, Nevin’s Real and Ideal Church, Turretin’s thoughts on “Incarnation Anyway” approach, and more. The impression one is left with is the breadth of the Reformed Tradition; surely, this 500 year old Tradition cannot be pigeon-holed to be just “justification by faith” (a crucial crux of the Tradition, nevertheless). 
Crisp, here, is not merely interested in clarifying confusion but sees constructive value for contemporary theology. One such value can be the practice of thinking with and, with caution, against the “greats.” How they were wrong is just as, if not more, important to ask than how they were right: theologians of today both stand at the shoulders and must attempt to see beyond the mistakes of the past. In other words, we must not merely ignore nor copy the past but think with the Tradition.