Cancer & Theology on all devices
When I organized the Cancer & Theology guest blog series in the spring of 2012, I had a very clear idea of what I hoped to get out of it. In the original introductory post, I wrote that I wanted to be “stretched in new and imaginative ways in how to think theologically about cancer (and, by extension, other illnesses) and those who have it.” I was much less confident, however, about whether the essays would be helpful for others.

As the series progressed, responses poured in both online and in-person, and it became undeniably clear that Cancer & Theology met a felt need. The responses were overwhelmingly positive: Readers not only expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reflect theologically on illness and death but also deep respect for the contributors’ honesty and faith. Even today, the essays continue to generate comments, emails, etc. from thankful readers.

In order to expand the reach of these marvelous essays, I’m thrilled to announce that the Cancer & Theology collection is now available as an e-book.

Cancer & Theology iPad Kindle photo

Edited, designed, and published by Elbow Co.—an indie church resourcing venture operated by myself and Erik Ullestadthe e-book has several exclusives that distinguish it from the online series.1 In addition to the original thirteen essays, it features:

Cancer & Theology is just $5.99 and is available today exclusively as an Amazon Kindle e-book.2 The design, which features a striking cover and gorgeous typography,3 renders beautifully on Kindle readers as well as iPhones, iPads, Mac and PC computers, and many other devices equipped with a free Kindle app.4 Additionally, 20% of all proceeds from sales of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Many thanks to the sixteen authors who contributed to this important collection. When you read Cancer & Theology‘s diverse assortment of essays, I believe you’ll be deeply appreciative of their depth, utility, and candor. So go ahead and buy a copy for yourself or for a friend as a gift (and when you’re finished, consider leaving a review on the Amazon page).

Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition]
Edited by Jake Bouma & Erik Ullestad
$5.99 Kindle Purchase
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Purchase at Amazon


  1. All of the essays from the original series will remain available for free on my blog in perpetuity. []
  2. It will eventually be available for Apple’s iBooks (for sure) and Barnes & Noble’s nook (hopefully), but is exclusive to Kindle for the time being. A print version is in the works as well. []
  3. For the curious, the main body text is set in Iowan Old Style, and the essay headings, blockquotes, etc. are set in Avenir Next. These fonts are actually embedded in the e-book file itself—taking advantage of them requires the selection of “Publisher Font” in Kindle’s “View Options” preferences. []
  4. After countless hours of coding and testing for the various Kindle devices and apps, I have a new and abiding respect for well-designed e-books. []

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The following is a preview of an original story that was delivered as the main element of the Reformation Sunday sermon presented to the congregation of Faith Lutheran Church (Clive, Iowa) on October 27, 2013. The entire story is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book and is compatible with any Kindle device and free Kindle reading apps.

Many centuries ago, there was a monk who was unable to speak. The monk had been mute his entire life, issuing no cries as an infant nor any words as he grew into a young man. Because of his condition, the young man was ostracized and even feared by the local townspeople, and while his parents did not disown him, they did not cherish him as a child should be cherished. Despite his deep perceptivity and intelligence, the stigma of being mute severely limited the young man’s educational and vocational options. And so at the age of fifteen, the young man left home, setting out on foot into the liberating darkness of night with nothing but a small, tattered bible. He walked all through the night and into the following morning and did not stop until, as the sun began to slouch below the horizon, he had reached the top of his destination’s long, stone stairway. The young man gripped the monastery door’s heavy iron doorknocker, thumped it three times, and held his breath. The door unlatched and he was wordlessly motioned inside. With relief and gratitude, the young man stepped into his new life as a monk…

The Mute Monk: A Short Story (Kindle Edition)
by Jake Bouma
$0.99 Kindle Purchase

Purchase at Amazon


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The Orphan Master's Son

In addition to attending last weekend’s Subverting the Norm conference (StN), I finished reading Adam Johnson’s captivating and improbably epic novel The Orphan Master’s Son (TOMS). I’d picked the book up about a week earlier and totally devoured it over the next seven days in enraptured spells squeezed between work, homework, and conference travel and events.

About halfway through the conference’s activities, with several speakers’ words ricocheting around my head alongside whatever developments I’d recently read in TOMS, I made a fleeting connection between the two, having detected an overlapping theme. This reflection, then, is my attempt to connect some of these disparate dots. Hopefully, what follows will make clear just what, in my experience, “happened”1 at StN.

Now, if you’re still with me,2 in order for any of this to make sense I must first provide some context. There’s simply no way around it. But before that, two things: 1) You should know that TOMS is in the early and distant lead for 2013′s Favorite Fiction Book, which means I have been and will be recommending it frequently, and as such, 2) it is not only benevolent, but is more importantly in my best interest to keep the ensuing context-setting as spoiler-free as possible, at which task I will do my best.

★ ★ ★

The primary setting of The Orphan Master’s Son is the necrocratic state of North Korea, a.k.a. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. While TOMS is indeed fictional, Johnson has said in an interview: “If literature is a fiction that tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love.” One of the ways in which this eating-away of totalitarianism manifests itself in the book is through one of the book’s narrative’s recurrent pieces of propaganda, which propaganda asserts that upon reaching old age, after having performed hard labor (and in most cases slaved — literally) for most of their lives, some of North Korea’s elderly are whisked away to Wonsan, whereupon they “will enter the paradise of retirement” (p.66), and subsequently are never heard from again — in theory because of the (supposedly) ceaselessly absorbing nature of Wonsan’s opulent retirement community.

About two thirds into the novel, a character known as Commander Ga is lying in bed with his wife, and the topic of Wonsan comes up.3 Having internalized a lifetime of propaganda concerning Wonsan, Ga’s wife holds dearly to the belief that her mother is alive, well, and safely savoring retirement on North Korea’s east coast.4 Ga, however, is a man who has experienced and seen first-hand many things in his adventure-filled life. We join the two characters as Commander Ga begins his confession:

“I have to tell you the truth,” he said to her.

“I am an actress,” she said. “The truth is all that matters to me.”

He didn’t hear her roll to her side, so he knew they both stared into the same darkness above. He was suddenly scared. His hands gripped the sheets.

“I’ve never been to Wonsan,” he said. “But I’ve sailed past it many times. There are no umbrellas in the sand. There are no lounge chairs or fishing poles. There are no old people. Wherever the grandparents of North Korea go, it’s not Wonsan.”

He tried listening for her breathing, but couldn’t even hear that.

At last, she spoke to him. “You’re a thief,” she said. “You are a thief who came into my life and stole everything that mattered to me.” (p. 301)

It seems to me that despite our (read: my) initial, visceral reaction to this shattering of hope, this thievery of belief, Commander Ga’s trepidatious revealing of the fiction of Wonsan is in fact the only possible “loving” option. “Not so!” we might object. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her! Where’s the harm in letting her continue to believe her mother is sitting on the beach beneath the shade of one of Wonsan’s many umbrellas?” But what Ga’s wife doesn’t know — what she now knows — does hurt her.

You see, Ga has freed his wife from her dual unknowing (she desperately wants to believe in Wonsan, and yet she has no proof, no verifiable knowledge of its existence or her mother’s safety) and the shackles of her false hope, and in so doing has gifted her the chance to authentically grieve her mother. By forcing her into a confrontation with the broken reality of North Korea in general and the human condition in particular, Ga has indeed acted as a thief. But what is found in the empty space vacated by his thievery is life at its most authentic: Cavernous, emotional, broken, ambiguous, and often dissatisfying. Or, as Peter Rollins (one of the conference’s keynote presenters) has said:

Peter Rollins on the density of life

And it is here that I believe we can see the crux of many StN presenters’ theological projects illuminated. In these presenters’ keynotes and in their various works, there is a manifest and persistent theological thievery at work.5 Speaking only for me, I find myself drawn to these and other theologians primarily because they are in the business of thieving away some of my deepest and — frequently — least examined theological convictions. In so doing they leave me, like Commander Ga’s wife, frustrated (to put it lightly), stupefied, and ultimately wondering what to do in the convictions’ absence.

When Kester Brewin says,6 “People have got to get out from under the economics of religion,” he’s disembarking his pirate ship and attempting to thieve away the oppressive, internalized, and mostly unscrutinized economic worldview from our cushy ocean liners and leaving in its place one that is (to re-quote Peter Rollins) more dense. When he says, “The most godly life is to live as if God doesn’t exist,” he is not simply being provocative for provocation’s sake, but rather is attempting to burglarise7 some of our most basic conceptions of God, and calling us in their absence (the conceptions’) to be open to the “possibility of deep pain” resulting from authentic engagement with our neighbor.8

When Peter Rollins says, riffing on 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Seeing in whole is the recognition that seeing in part is seeing fully,” he’s re-articulating one of the main, plundering points from his book The Idolatry of God, in which he says, “There is another, more radical form of freedom hinted at in the Gospels — not the freedom to pursue what we believe will satisfy us, but the freedom from the pursuit of what we believe will satisfy us” (p. 80, emphasis in original). Which is to say he’s sneaking off with the theological crutch of satisfaction and leaving in its place a richer and denser reality, however difficult that reality is to swallow. “Deep down,” he said, “we kind of know that we are haunted houses.”

Speaking of haunted houses, when the eminent and indefatigable philosopher-cum-theologian John Caputo says, “Wouldn’t it be better if theology was a spook? A spectral figure that inspires, haunts, disturbs?” he’s really making the case for this theological thievery at which, it should be said, he totally excels. Wouldn’t we be better off if strength and certainty were stolen away and weakness and uncertainty (PDF link) were left in their stead?

When Barry Taylor, after walking the us through the rich worlds envisaged in Mark Tansey‘s paintings, quoting essayist and science fiction author Philip K. Dick, says, “The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum,” he’s donning a black ski mask, creeping off into the night with our tendency to find misguided solace in the false belief that blessed are the rich and powerful, and leaving in its vacuum Jesus’ demanding declaration that No! blessed are the poor and the meek.

These and similar assertions, sometimes grouped under an umbrella known as radical theology,9 assist in validating the foregoing claim, viz.: Having faith that Wonsan’s retirement community exists is nothing but destructive, and its propagandists are no more than perpetrators of a vicious, death-dealing lie. To accept that Wonsan’s fabled lounge chairs and fishing poles are a fabrication, to simply be exposed to this truth, is to be liberated. It is to be emancipated from the fiction and, newly unencumbered, to set about the task of embracing and making sense of the alternately deplorable and delightful non-fiction that comprises reality. In the coordinated heist that was StN, Brewin, Rollins, Caputo, Taylor et al.10 stole some things from myself and others, but what they left behind is more inspiring, haunting, and disturbing — and ultimately more satisfactory.

★ ★ ★

Now, this is all an admittedly roundabout take on articulating my particular experience at StN and consequently why a continued participation in these unique theological conversations/gatherings is valuable to me. But if you’re still with me,11 I’d like to make one final observation, with more help from TOMS.

Later on in the novel, Commander Ga is having a conversation with his friend Comrade Buc, and we enter their conversation here shortly after Ga has revealed some deep-seated anti-government sentiments:

Comrade Buc cringed. “No, no, no,” he said. “You don’t tell anyone, ever. Don’t you know that? You never tell. Not your friends, not your family, especially not me. You could get everyone killed. If they interrogate me, they’ll know I knew. And that’s assuming you make it. Do you know the cushy promotion I’d get for turning you in?” Buc threw his hands up. “You don’t ever tell. Nobody tells. Never.”

[...]

Comrade Buc began lining fishing poles up against a tree. His hands were shaky. When he had them all set, a line snagged, and the poles fell over again. He looked at Ga, as if it were his fault. “But you,” he said. “You’re the one who tells.” He shook his head. “That’s why you’re different. Somehow the rules are different for you, and that’s why you maybe have a shot at making it.” (p. 322)

The theologians at StN are clearly perspicacious, but they are hardly popular; thieves rarely are. I say this not to be critical, but to illustrate the fact that, for theologians, telling gets you killed. While playing it safe — that is, perpetuating “the lie” — not only keeps you alive but carries with it the potential for drawing massive crowds, revealing truths that runs counter to established and accepted thought — calling the thing what it actually is — well, nobody’s supposed to tell.

But that’s why these men and women are different. Like Commander Ga, they’re the ones that tell. Somehow the rules are different for them, and that’s why they maybe have a shot at making it. And as long as they keep telling, I’ll keep listening. And maybe eventually I’ll find that I have my own secret to tell, that perhaps I myself am called to commit a bit of theological thievery.

★ ★ ★

Finally, in his book Rising Up and Rising Down,12 William Vollmann tells the story of a U.N. interpreter who is well acquainted with death, having lost friends and colleagues “almost every week.” Vollmann writes that this woman

“merely did the best thing that can be done for any bereaved person, which was to show me her own sadness, so that my sadness would feel less lonely.” (p. 18-19)

When Micki Pulleyking asked us, “Do you know what it’s like to grieve the death of your childhood God?” there were significantly more head-nodders than abstainers in the crowd. So common is this experience among those who gathered at StN that it approaches the cliché. So it is safe to say that coming together at StN was a way for us, like the U.N. interpreter, to show one another our own sadness concerning this death/theft, and to make the sadness feel less lonely. But more broadly and importantly, it is the call of the church to join together, having been emboldened by the magic of the Eucharist and sent forth as the Body of Christ, to share our sadness and brokenness and in so doing to steel ourselves for the task of making others’ sadness and brokenness a little less lonely.

And so together we gaze into the gap the thieves and Thief has left behind and with all the sincerity that we can muster, we say to each other and to God: “Come.”

  1. Forgive the scare quotes, Tony. []
  2. Just checking. []
  3. Again, w/r/t avoiding spoilers, I don’t think I’m giving away much here — The book’s table of contents reveals that Part Two is titled “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” after all. []
  4. As with many of the book’s details, Wonsan is an actual geographical location. []
  5. Does anybody know how I’d go about trademarking the word “thiefologian”? Asking for a friend. []
  6. N.B.: Many of the quotations in the main text’s current and following paragraphs have been transcribed from my haphazardly handwritten notes taken during the presenters’ keynotes. Some of the quotes were transcribed pretty much word-for-word, but several of them are more like paraphrases due to my simultaneous and competing desires to take notes and pay attention to the next sentence. In other words, the quotes are close enough, mmk? []
  7. That Britishism’s for you, K.B. []
  8. After posting the “The most godly life…” quote as a tweet, I posted a second tweet, attempting to clarify, which reads: “By which [Kester] means that once you remove the grand demands of God, you can get on with tending to the needs of those around you.” []
  9. Tad DeLay has compiled a pretty comprehensive bibliography of radical theology for StN attendees and other inquisitives, which can be found here. []
  10. I’m aware that I only referenced white males in the examples above, but don’t go thinking that StN was an All White Boys’ Club (I mean, see for yourself); FWIW, I was particularly moved by presentations from Namsoon Kang and Melinda McGarrah Sharp. []
  11. I’m willing to venture that the few who have made it this far (a smaller subset of which is probably already annoyed to have been directed away from the blog post’s main text by yet another footnote, especially after having made it through what appears to be the main text’s most meaty section) and who are at the present moment (perhaps exasperatedly) reading this footnote’s text, upon seeing the superscript “11″ abutting the phrase “if you’re still with me” in the main text, suspected that this footnote’s text might be something like “Just checking” (or maybe a subtle variation on the theme, like “Just checking. Again.” e.g.) which isn’t a terribly bad suspicion, given, on the one hand, the author’s inclination toward but arguably lackluster execution of the type of dry humor into which category that type of syntactical brevity would undoubtedly fall, and on the other hand the reader’s presumed encounter with the hilarious footnote #2, and so while you had likely expected to be sidetracked by this footnote for a mere two words – three, at most! – you nevertheless find yourself well into the latter half of this absurdly protracted and indulgently self-referential footnote, the existence of which is by now ambiguous at best and possibly (you suspect) downright manipulative and/or malevolent, but yet here you are, having nearly tackled this seemingly irrelevant monster of a footnote, for which empty feat I, the author, would like to concurrently extend both sincere condolences and hearty congratulations. Honestly? I was just checking. []
  12. Mike, if you’re reading this, you’ll be happy to hear my confession that I’ve read less than 1% and closer to 0% of this 752 page behemoth (itself an abridgment of the original 3,000-page, seven-volume set). In fact, I only just picked up the book at Half Price Books this very afternoon and, while flipping through the book’s first few pages, serendipitously stumbled on the referenced passage, instantly recognizing its (the passage’s) applicability in this blog post’s concluding section. In sum, don’t feel bad about the whole Weakness of God thing, okay? []

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Providence autocomplete

Every week, as part of my Overview of Christian Teaching course at Luther Seminary, we students are asked to engage the week’s assigned reading by posting on our class’s online forum a response to a hypothetical case study.

We are working our way through Roger E. Olson’s The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity, and last week’s chapter covered the theological idea of providence, which seeks to detail the precise nature of God’s intervention in the world. We were also assigned John Polkinghorne’s essay God in Relation to Nature as additional reading. The case study for this chapter was as follows:

The local newspaper every Saturday publishes a special section of the paper devoted to religion, ethics and spirituality entitled Faith & Values. The editor of Faith & Values has called asking you to write a short article to be published this coming Saturday that addresses the following question: Is God responsible for natural disasters like the hurricane that devastated New Orleans a few years ago (by causing them or permitting them to happen)? The editor requires that you are to write from your own convictions and conclusions on this issue, and not simply report possible solutions that have been posed with respect to the problem of evil throughout history or your own denomination’s point of view (although they may be cited in support of, or as a way of explaining, your own view). You have, for better or worse, accepted this assignment. Post the article you intend to submit to the paper as your Leading Statement.

Because I particularly enjoyed both the assigned readings and the nature of this case study, I have decided to post my response here as well, as a means of giving the response some exposure beyond my small group of seminary classmates. Posted below the break, in full, is the text of what I posted to my class’s forum. I have, however, added some footnotes for clarity, additional information, etc. Finally, a quick disclaimer: Because these posts directly engage our readings and come with a length requirement, what follows does not necessarily equal my fully realized and articulated theology of providence.


Editorial: Is God responsible?

by Jake Bouma

The question of whether or not God is to blame for natural disasters and human-wrought tragedies like the Holocaust is one that generally gets a lot of play in the media.1 While one is rarely exposed to intelligent discussions of rather important theological doctrines such as the Trinity on radio, television or in print, it is however quite common for Christian talking heads to score significant airtime by discussing God’s culpability (or lack thereof) in regards to the latest national tragedy. Recent examples include hurricane Katrina’s devastating destruction of New Orleans in 2005 and even more recently, the tragic deaths of twenty children and six adults in Sandy Hook. Shortly after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more, prominent Christian pastor and leader John Piper uploaded a (now infamous) post to his blog titled Putting My Daughter to Bed Two Hours After the Bridge Collapsed, in which he claimed (among other things) that “God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Finding prominent Christians who are both confident in their assertion that God is responsible for every particular thing that happens on earth — a theological position known as meticulous providence — as well as willing to declare this confidence on the national stage is relatively easy; it is a view held by many Christians both today and throughout history. It is the position of this author, however, that there is a better way to interpret such events, a way that is both intellectually defensible and true to Christian scripture.2

Those unfamiliar with the contours of theology and its history may be surprised to discover that while some theological assertions have remained relatively unchanged for hundreds (if not thousands!) of years, many such assertions are still squabbled over to this day, their particularities being revisited, scrutinized, and sometimes even revised. This particular question — “Is God responsible?” — is simply an entry point into the ongoing discussion about God’s providence; that is, how exactly does God interact with and intervene in nature and history, and what does this interaction (or lack thereof) say about this God?

As mentioned earlier, the belief in God’s “meticulous providence” has a lot of clout, both historically and contemporarily. The essence of this belief — defended by such theological heavyweights as St. Augustine and John Calvin, among others — is, as professor of theology Roger Olson writes, “absolute, meticulous planning, willing and controlling by God such that there is in nature no ‘maverick molecule’… and in history no ‘divine risk’” (Olson, 190-191). In other words, everything that happens is willed by God because it is “somehow necessary for the greatest good” (Olson, 191), regardless of how difficult such tragic pills may be for us humans to swallow. Some committed Christians and enterprising theologians have sought to “update” this theology so as to allow more space for human agency or will in a position known as limited providence, which essentially asserts that while God does not will such evils, God unmistakably permits them, in order to “preserve the freedom and moral responsibility of the world” (Olson, 194).

Within the last quarter-century, however, a new school of thought about God’s providence has received some traction, and while its particularities are still being ironed out by theologians of many different stripes, I contend that it provides the best framework for making sense of God and God’s interaction with the world. This theological position, known popularly as open theism, reinterprets the idea of providence as “God’s resourceful and powerful response to humanity within the frameworks of nature and history” (Olson, 195). As one proponent of open theism, John Sanders, has written, “In grace God grants humans a role in collaborating with him on the course that human history takes” (Olson, 195).3 That is, God is not the direct cause of everything that happens on earth, but rather God has chosen to limit or empty himself (in an act known to theologians as kenosis) in order that God might participate with humanity in the great and unfolding cosmic play.

Now, this does not mean that humanity is somehow equal with God and able to bring about God’s ultimate will for the cosmos — that would be heresy, indeed! Rather, Christians claim the truth that God has a perfect and benevolent will for the universe that will ultimately come to fruition. As noted theologian and physicist (yes, both!) John Polkinghorne has said, “the God who is the ground of a true and everlasting hope will work ceaselessly to bring salvation to creation.” And yet I submit that this very same God, contrary to what proponents of meticulous providence would have us believe, “interacts within creaturely history but does not overrule the acts of creatures,” as Polkinghorne claims. Ultimately, the narrative of God and humanity is heading toward the good and perfect realization of what Jesus referred to as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” In the meantime, however, we Christians are called to cooperate with God — utilizing our own free will — in the pursuit at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So let us not needlessly blame God for the evils and tragedies that befall us. Let us instead recognize God’s desire for ultimate, cosmic restoration and pledge our allegiance to working with this compassionate God in the spreading of light and hope.

  1. I use the idea of talking heads to make a point in this essay, but the issue of divine providence is firmly embedded in our cultural zeitgeist, as attested to by this tweet from @TheTweetOfGod, a satirical and often times hilariously profane Twitter account. []
  2. Only after I had posted my “editorial” did I realize that I had never really defended the “true to Christian scripture” claim. One prominent example that would support my argument can be found in Exodus 32, in which Moses pleads with God to not “bring disaster on your people.” Ultimately, God relents. Exodus 32:14: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” []
  3. Now, meticulous providence, limited providence, and open theism are not the only three possible renderings of divine providence in Christian theology, but they are the three that Olson permits as acceptable. I must admit that although I am still relatively uninformed about it, process theology seems to me to be a reasonable (if not satisfactory) theological framework in which to interpret things such as providence. Alas, Olson is open in his disgust for process theology, claiming it has “infiltrated and corrupted” mainstream Protestantism (188). []

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Subverting the Norm

It’s been a while since I’ve attended a non-Extravaganza conference. The last one, I believe, was a First Third event presented by Luther Seminary’s Children, Youth and Family Ministry program back in 2010.

So I’m happy to be heading south for the Subverting the Norm conference in a week and a half. Subverting the Norm describes itself as a

two-day event that brings together pastors, theologians, philosophers, church practitioners, researchers in religion and all those interested in exploring the relationship between postmodern theologies and the church.

Suffice it to say that I’m totally excited to attend, and for many reasons. Here are just eight of them:

  1. The list of presenters is incredible.
  2. One of the presenters, John Caputo, wrote a book entitled On Religion which is not only featured in one of my favorite photographs (which photograph is hanging in my kitchen), but also had an excerpt featured as a reading in my wedding liturgy.
  3. While we’re still speaking of presenters, it will be nice to finally meet in person several of the gracious folks who contributed to the Cancer & Theology series, including Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins,1 and catch up with other contributors like Tony Jones and Mike Stavlund.
  4. Speaking of the inimitable Mike Stavlund, I’m thrilled that he will be my roommate at the conference. I met Mike at the Christianity21 conference in 2009, and he’s directly responsible for the genesis of my awesome forearm tattoo. I’m excited to catch up and pick his brain about his excellent new memoir A Force of Will.
  5. The weather in Springfield is bound to be nicer than it has been in Des Moines.
  6. The pre-event with Peter Rollins, The Hellish Pursuit of Heaven, promises to be both fun and enlightening.
  7. Many of the breakout sessions look great, and I’m particularly excited for the session featuring Josh Linton on “What Am I Still Doing Here? My Life as a Progressive Youth Minister and Border-Line Agnostic,” John Vest on “Do(n’t) Tell the Kids: Precritical and Postcritical Naivete in Ministry with Children and Youth,” and Timothy Wotring on “Approaching Youth Ministry from a Poststructuralist Lens.” Full geek-out mode, engage!
  8. Finally, my own interactions with postmodernism and theology extend back to my undergraduate senior paper, which was titled Toward a Postmodern Youth Ministry: An Examination of Postmodern Youth Culture in Conversation with the Emerging Church. I’m excited to continue the conversation — both externally and internally — and to use the opportunity to sharpen my own thoughts on theology and ministry.

Are any readers of this blog attending? What else should I be excited about?

Elsewhere: Ten Reasons to Attend Subverting the Norm, 7 Reasons to Subvert the Norm in April

  1. While Pete didn’t actually contribute to the series, I’m still holding out hope he’ll pen the preface to a forthcoming edition of the series. []

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Post image for David Foster Wallace on preaching’s purpose

A half-finished thought:1

I was re-reading this 1993 interview of David Foster Wallace from The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and this particular passage jumped out at me:

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

But so what if Wallace wasn’t talking about fiction, but about preaching? Say he was interviewed for Christianity Today instead; might his response look something like this? (changes in bold):

I had a teacher I liked who used to say a good sermon’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious preaching’s purpose is to give the hearer, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to church for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of preaching can allow us imaginatively to identify with another’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

Might it just be that simple?

  1. Which I am posting here on this weblog mostly because the thought, while half-finished, is too lengthy for other medium particularly fertile for such thoughts, e.g., Twitter. []

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