When the Holy Spirit Gets His Way

The late (but gratefully remembered) Dallas Willard evoked Oswald Chambers’s axiom that “The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is getting his way with us.” Today, Christ-followers, for sake of King and Kingdom, cannot spurn the Spirit’s promptings. The “times” intensify the difficulty and sense of threat in a society set against a righteous culture. Yet the historian in me hastens to remind us that we live in times, and in a society, that reflect the historical norm. Why, being as we are, we vex the Holy Spirit even in our churches unless the Christ-life is our unchanging daily aim! And that is what we need, what I need.

For today, Willard’s statement about Christ-like engagement (Matthew 6:33–love your enemies) with the world reminds me of the impossible necessity–that only Christ through Holy Spirit makes possible:

. . . Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do. For a person living that life, the hard thing to do would be to hate the enemy, to turn the supplicant away, or to curse the curser, just as it was for Christ. True Christlikeness, true companionship with Christ, comes at the point where it is hard not to respond as he would.”  (The Spirit of the Disciplines, page eight)

Impossible? Yes, for me and you, unless, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it (and Jesus – John 15:5), we recognize that by ourselves we can do nothing; only as Christ bears the cross (the same one he calls us to bear, also our yoke) can we bear it at all. Only as we find our constant dwelling in and with Him can we live as He lives. Only as we bear the sins, sorrows, sufferings even of our enemies, just as we should our own fellowship of believers in Christ, do we love as Christ loves. Truly to follow Christ is to be bound to him in sorrow and suffering, even forsakenness. And following his Gethsemane and Golgotha example, one overcomes only by going through. Christ’s cup could not be taken from him–and only by following through is it possible to overcome. Thankfully, we have the fellowship of suffering in and with Jesus Christ, himself and his gathered community of witnesses and disciples. In that fellowship we are sustained, in that same fellowship we are commanded to love each other, and we are commanded to love others outside it. (Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, 44-5; Matthew 26:39, 42; John 15:5, 26-27; 16:13. Bear in mind that when I say “love”, I refer to determined action for the sake of the other’s good. It is that “dynamic other-interestedness” of I John 4:7-8.)

Pardon my Pique, Again . . .

In the Hoover Digest, Spring 2013 issue, Chester E. Finn writes in “A ‘Bar Exam’ for Teachers?” about his concern with a phrase in one of the American Federation of Teachers’ objectives for such a national exam.  It is the phrase “in-depth test of subject . . . knowledge.”  He indicates that the AFT document tells little about what subject knowledge is to be known.  Finn, along with the blogger Andrew Rotherham, at Eduwonk, has doubts about the purity of the AFT proposals to raise standards for new teachers.

But I  am still stumbling over the expression, “in-depth”.  Yes, it is in my dictionaries.  Yes, it means what it means.  It also is among the most overused words in “professional” discourse.  My students litter their papers with it.   In practice, however, the word often means little.  Beyond that concern, with so many richly nuanced candidates in the dictionary, why not consider using them?

I have in mind (to replace the term in the objectionable phrase) words like deep, comprehensive, thorough, ample, complete, extensive, and exhaustive.  Yes, I know that speakers and writers seek words that communicate to hearers and readers clearly.  But I refuse to accept the assumption that jargon serves best, when a better word, just the right word, could serve better and more thoughtfully. 

 A word fitly chosen is like apples of gold in baskets of silver.  The baskets of silver are rare, still rarer the apples of gold.

But back to Finn’s doubts about the AFT’s concern for subject-matter knowledge also relate to the emphasis on an “in-depth test” rather than a test of comprehensive knowledge.  We do have too many “in-depth” tests, and often too little mastery of content in the teaching field.  Perhaps the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards can develop acceptable nationwide standards for disciplinary examinations, but I am with those observers who ask whether that is a good idea.  Apparently it sounds like a good idea to some, or might it also serve unspoken political purposes?  This matter is worth attending to over the near term.

Our Story within the Story

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells about life experiences on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest.  She related the story of her conversation with a painter friend; asked how his work was going, Paul Glenn told another story.  He reminisced about Ferrar Burn, a man long dead, who had rowed his eight-foot skiff out one evening into the strait to salvage a stray Alaskan cedar log–the locals watched for these logs so prized as building material.  With a towline on the log, Burn rowed toward his beach, but the swift outbound tide swept his skiff and the log miles down the channel from evening until the tide reversed in the early morning.  During the night hours, in the northern twilight, Burn kept rowing until the swift, inbound tide carried him and the log home, to his own beach.  Glenn’s response merits reflection:

‘You asked how my work is going,’ he said.  ‘That’s how it’s going.  The current’s got me.  Feels like I’m about in the middle of the channel now.  I just keep at it.  I just keep hoping the tide will turn and bring me in.’  (p 88)

Two points here.  One, that your life’s work can feel that way.  You’re either rowing against the tide, or with it, but it’s not your call.  Two, that life is like a story within a story.  No surprise there, but your — my —  faith story needs to be understood rightly:  I tend to think God’s sovereign place and work is a story within my own, but that’s reversed from the greater truth.  My story can only be, at last, a story within God’s story.  You and I need to know our places and roles.  Like Burn in his skiff, our role is to keep rowing, to keep relying on the rule of the tide.

Quotation from Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, Harper Perennial, 1989.


Copyright 2012 by Jerry Summers.


Psalm 42

In a special preaching class at SBTS, around 1978, George Arthur Buttrick, then about 86, commented that certain passages left the preacher mute, they were beyond profound.  Deep calleth unto deep . . . .  Yes, in Psalm 42, opening Book 2, the psalmist limns deer, streams of water, the “I” and “my soul,” depression; but the LORD who gives loyal love and gives songs in the night, the living God, his mountain summit, his deliverer, is absent.  When will I be able to go and appear in God’s presence?  (v.2–see the face of God)  Not so his enemies, his mourning and depression.  My tears have become my food day and night.  (v.3)  But despite all the psalmist is undeterred:  I will again give thanks to my God for his saving intervention. (vv 5-11)  I can imagine the psalmist  driven to the high hills by enemies, separated from the community of Israel and temple worship, needing reunion, vindication, and the soul-quenching presence of the LORD.  Enemies say relentlessly Where is your God?  (vv 3, 10) There were the deer, drinking deeply at the mountain streams early and late, hiding in secure places at other times.  They, too, live in refuge and seek to replenish their souls.  O, to seek God early and late each day!  The promise is at mid-psalm:  One deep stream calls out to another at the sound of your waterfalls; all your billows and waves overwhelm me.  By day the LORD decrees his loyal love, and by night his song is with me, a prayer to the living God. (vv 7-8)  And twice the psalmist says to his soul Wait for God!  (vv 5, 11)  Meantime the psalmist knows the depth of his distress and the saving intervention of God–both at once?–as he is overwhelmed in the stream’s torrent.  This might be the place where the preacher knows only to choose the best understanding for the day.  The stream so desired appears ready for drinking, it announces love by day and songs by night, yet for the psalmist the promise of deeper replenishment is not fulfilled.  Hope remains, though, for one deep stream calls out to another — deep calleth unto deep — the human soul in bottomless need calls out to the LORD who is the endless resource.

I will add here that Psalm 43 following shows God’s holy hill where he lives as our psalmist’s desire.  In the mountains of Psalm 42, only promises, the true source is on a special hill.  See, too, Revelation 21:9–22:5.

Quotations from the NET Bible ; for superlative poetic value, try the Authorized or King James Version.

(Dr. Buttrick was visiting by special request by SBTS from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary where he was a guest lecturer.  He was among the most profound of preachers and lecturers.)

Copyright 2012 by Jerry Summers.

Eden Waning

When I think about the paradise called Eden, I am torn between two visions (just two, but not that there are no more possibilities).  The first vision, much like the Persian paradeizia or walled garden, is a place of cooling shade and breezes in a desert or semi-desert.  Such a place is indeed a delight in the predawn or early dawn and later in the evening, and at the least a welcome break during the heat of the day.  The second vision suggests a humid, subtropical or tropical, verdant jungle where the heat of the day still is quite comfortable and the evening and morning will balance rising humidity with coolness.

This is not what I find in East Texas right now, here, in the seam between summer’s hottest period and the decisive cooling trend that is still to come, and especially when the days are humid and still or misty and rainy like today.  It is as if the seasons have almost agreed on a boundary between themselves, and they cannot decide when and where to mark it.  So it is a transition, yes, that is what we say.   The astronomical summer season ends  in just nine days by the calendar, but we do not dare to hope that its heat will leave us quickly, though we will still feel it during many days in October and perhaps even November.  Autumn will enter gloriously and at a time  not of our choosing.  This year, with our late summer rains, the browning and dying are to be a bit late, following surely the later greening that surprised us, that conflicted with our expectations of August and September.

“Interpretation” for my students, re G. Steiner

In his book, Real Presences, George Steiner asserts a “wager on transcendence.”  He is referring to

“the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.” (4)

He argues for that which is real or substantiated when people use language or create forms, when in making meaning they arrive at “meaningfulness.”  Now, all that is possible, Steiner argues, because God is present and is the transcendent reality that makes it possible for us to truly create art and to communicate.

We are talking about interpretation or hermeneutics in class.  Steiner writes that hermeneutics defines “the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.”  We may have to unpack that a bit in class . . . .

He also mentions three “principal senses” of interpretation:

An interpreter is:

  • a decipherer and communicator of meanings;
  • a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions;
  • in essence, an executant, one who “acts out” the material before him so as to give it intelligible life.
An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia.  A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography.  A violinist a Bach partita.  In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation. (8)
Another quote from Steiner–and though he refers to music, theatre, art and poetry, he also refers to “non-dramatic literature,” which of course can mean for us the more “typical” primary source texts in history, whatever they would be–dealing with the moral aspect of interpretation and the question is “the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?”
Interpretive response under pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability.  The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibly.  We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological.  (8)
Steiner has much more to say, but for our purposes right now, these points may help us to reflect on how we examine and analyse historical source documents or other primary source artifacts in our study of history.  This means that as historians we are not just examining evidence from the past.  We are serving as interpreters, translators in an important sense.  This kind of study requires us to be fully engaged and surprisingly deeply committed to what it is we think is important about the past.  In this kind of study we actually become historians in much more personal, intellectual and spiritual ways.  We gain new understanding about our own moral sensibilities and responsibilities.  So, we are involved in an exciting, holistic, human pursuit.
Sooner or later we all experience the challenge or delight of “interpretive response under pressure of enactment.”  Actually, in a sense, we face this each day; there is no day when we are not required to be answerable or responsible, even in the “everyday” or mundane things.  To propose a point to ponder:  was not Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God, the ultimate enactor-responder-artist of humanity, the model not just of a fully-realized humanity but of the immanence of God–God’s very presence in human person and community?  And even in his earthly, human life, did he not show us the extraordinary dimensions of wholeness as well as holiness?  And why should we not strive to realize, to find him “made real” in every part of our individual and social lives?  Even in a history class?  Let’s think about it and try it out.
Hebrews 9:1–10:25
Quotations from George Steiner, Real Presences, University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Wingborne. Wing-Beat. More Insight.

In his essay on “Goethe (there’s that Grrr-tuh again), the First Father of the Third Age of the Church,” Matthew del Nevo speaks about the “whole Kingdom of God” as “a raising up, a transfiguration and glorification of humanity and the world.” This is accomplished through being lost in love, and in hope: “Hope lifts us.  This is exactly what the Gospel is supposed to do, and what the Church is supposed to do for the poor:  lift them up, raise mankind.”

Del Nevo introduces lines from Goethe’s Urworte. Orphisch.  about hope:  “This poem captures the spiritual nature of hope.  We are caught in the traps of necessity, chance, destiny, and eros, but there is a way out.  We are free if we have hope.  Hope lifts us.”  And so, Goethe:

Let these impediments, these walls of iron [of Ananke]

Stand in their wonted rocklike endurance:

But the repulsive gate shall be unlocked!

One being [hope] moves, light and untrammelled,

through curtains of clouds, rain and fog,

Lifting us up, giving us wings:

You know her well, she swarms through all zones,

And one beat of her wings leaves behind us eons.

It is this Goethe that so inspired Franz Rosenzweig, though FR’s German reading surely must have surpassed this particular English translation. I am re-thinking Goethe’s Christian-ness, persuaded to grapple with this by del Nevo’s stunning arguments that focus on the assertion of a link between Goethean thinking and Pentecostalism, and, quoting Gianni Vattimo, “secularity as the authentic destiny of Christianity.”  There are references to the writings of Berdyaev and to the religionless Christianity of Bonhoeffer.  Del Novo makes the challenging assertion,

Pentecostalism, for all its theological roots in the holiness movement, and for all its theological vagaries and reactions, is the Christianity of a secular world.  And for those in a part of the world that is not secularized (and in a world that is fully mapped, where would that really be?), Pentecostalism will pull new believers out of their old beliefs, in the name of Jesus, and dispel all the old gods, witches, and demons.  Christ will break the chains.  The person set free, though, will be a more secular person, rather than, as one might expect, a more somehow religious person.

Here I see connections between Rosenzweig, Bonhoeffer, and so much that has been happening in “post-modern” Christianity, and what del Novo refers to as “the philosophy of redemptive speech thinking,” Rosenzweig’s “the new thinking.”  Here is the point:  wherever and whenever Christ-followers are doing the work he calls them to do, they are living and working within a set of relationships that resists all philosophical, theological, metaphysical and political critique–the work is as fundamental as the varieties of human needs yet it applies just as much to education and cultural development.  It comes from the Spirit of God and produces good things for people.  It is, in fact, a principle of incarnation and of restoration to the Creator’s intention.  So, Bonhoeffer (Nachfolge, 221):

Er ist den Menschen gleich geworden, damit sie ihm gleich seien.

He became like humanity, that they should be like him.

Bonhoeffer follows with the biblical teaching on the Cross and Trinitarian communion-in-life.  There one finds himself or herself while forgetting self; carrying the new image one looks not to his or her own life, but “only upon him whom he or she follows,” who then as one who follows after Christ also imitates God (as a beloved child; Ephesians 5:1; Nachfolge, 224).  The very assertion means so much for us all.

Citations except for Bonhoeffer from:  Matthew del Nevo, “Goethe, the First Father of the Third Age of the Church,” in Wayne Cristaudo and Frances Huessy, eds., The Cross and the Star: The Post-Nietzschean Christian and Jewish Thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 243-275.



Forty-five years ago I sat to learn and read German under Mark Walton, the son of a Hungarian Jewess and Austrian Catholic.  An Anschluss refugee to the United States, Herr Walton got teaching certification at USC, translated for the Army and the German prisoners-of-war in the Northwest, and afterward gave generations of Californians a solid grounding in German, French and Latin.  He even dated Ida Lupino’s sister once or twice.  Through all that he remained an exotic, European immigrant-come-citizen, with Austrian accent beneficial for modeling Hochdeutsch – “high German” and mannerisms deeply traditional to his homeland.  He remains among many dozens perhaps the best teacher I ever had; how many of the others gave me so thoroughly another language, another culture?

In the third and fourth years we read Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and others; I still possess a slim novel by Adalbert Stifter, a gift of my teacher. This much I carried away from Goethe then as we read  Faust and learned one could not possess the world except to one’s own peril.  I did not know then that our reading method meant “thinking translation” that emphasized connotative, intuitive comprehension as much as accuracy to the meanings of words and idioms.  That training has paid dividends over the years in master’s and doctoral studies, and I enjoy employing it all I can in looking at Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy, and now again Goethe [try a light, guttural “Grrr-tuh’].

Here, I encounter Wilhelm Meister and his lifelong education while I read Matthew del Nevo about pentecostalism in relation to Rosenzweig’s Johannine Third Age, marvel at the new syntheses that appear among those who grapple with “the new thinking” (which is Bible-old, I tell you), and see how it connects with such varied truth conduits as Newman, Bonhoeffer and Soloveitchik.  I am compelled to reexamine, perhaps genuinely to understand, Goethe for the first time in ways not possible forty-five years ago.  I think Herr Walton knew that; I regret not to have looked more deeply than I did over the years, though I am grateful for the seeds planted at that time.


Adonoi Hashem My Refuge ~ Psalm 73:25-28

Whom have I in heaven but Thee?  And there is none upon the earth that I desire beside Thee.  My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the rocky summit of my heart and my portion (secure place of life and refuge–home place).  For, behold, they that are far from Thee will perish; Thou has destroyed all those who are unfaithful to thee (a-whoring, adulterous, looking for lesser substitutes, entrusting one’s life and passions to anything or anyone else). But drawing near to God is good to me; I have made Adonoi The Lord Hashem The Name my refuge, that I may declare all Thy deeds.

What is it like to be distinctly, securely a member of God’s people?

(With restricted liberty and faint apology to translators of the NET Bible, the Orthodox Jewish Bible, and the NASB.)

Rosenzweig on Meinecke on History

So pithy, this student statement of Franz Rosenzweig about his history professor, Friedrich Meinecke, at Freiburg in 1908:  “He treats history as though it were a Platonic dialogue, not murder and manslaughter.”

Rosenzweig, citizen of the militant Kaisersreich, the German Empire, knew about war as a contemporary fact.  The quotation shows his frame of mind about war–it was no abstraction to him.  Before long he had the opportunity to serve the state during the Balkan Wars and the Great War, though not in direct combat.  His opinion of war did not improve, and war sharpened his focus on the ultimate things.