A Different Way to Do Luther: A Review of Colors of God for Ooze Viral Bloggers

Colors of God: Conversations about Being the Church.
By Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen.
231 pp. Authentic.  $15.

Three years have passed now since I stopped posting over at theooze.com’s message boards, and I have to admit that I don’t entirely miss the experience.  When I did decide to leave, the tone in general had for the most part (with happy exceptions) become belligerent, and I grew tired over time of people’s scoring “gotcha” points when I was trying to explore what I took to be important ideas and intersections of ideas.  As folks know who read here and who used to read over at Hardly the Last Word, I’ve come to enjoy blogging more than message-board posting because blogs allow for paragraphs that explore ideas, and for the most part, folks who read blogs don’t mind reading those paragraphs and allowing some exploration.

Oh, and I can moderate the comments. 🙂

The sad thing about my departure (and no, I’m not returning) is that, in the three years or so that I posted there, I was interacting (I found out later) with some folks who would become at least moderately well-known in Emergent circles, but I didn’t have enough of a grasp of that cluster of phenomena to say much about it.  (Whether I’m part of it or not I’ll allow others to judge.)  Colors of God is another artifact that makes me realize that the line that Emergent folks so often use, the bit about Emergent’s being a conversation, is not some bit of pop-culture fluff but in reality a key to understanding what’s going on in that loose coalition of thinkers, speakers, and book-writers.  To say that the whole shebang is really just the latest public face of Evangelicalism is to ignore figures who really do wish to popularize some of the more liberal/mainline theologies that have developed in places like Union Theological Seminary.  To say that it’s all a front for theological liberalism is to ignore that a relatively conservative intellectual like Scot McKnight is at the core of the conversation’s history.  And to say that it’s somehow a repudiation of the core principles of the Reformation is to ignore books like Colors of God, a joint project of Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen, a project unintelligible except in the context of a radical Lutheran theology of grace.

The core of their theology as presented in this book is a Lutheran understanding of the gospel, namely that human wretchedness is forgiven and forgotten, without remainder, by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That core conviction is the blue color in their four-color scheme, and taken in a large sweep, there’s little with which to quibble.  Asked to give in brief form the broad outlines of Christian theology, certainly something like that contention would appear in my own account.  My concern is that the broad sweep becomes totalizing, resulting in a tendency to rule out certain interpretations of Biblical texts without considering the shape of the texts themselves.  I first noticed the trend on page 40, when Randall Peters says that certain (apparently obvious) interpretations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan categorically can not be right, but throughout the book the three authors in turn declare that this or that reading cannot be allowed because it doesn’t fit without remainder into the first principle of their theology.  As readers who look at my lectionary posts know, one of the functions I believe the Bible should serve is to correct us, and my fear at the outset in this book was that a rigid adherence to a system would disallow the rise of a “theological datum” (Walter Brueggemann’s term) in any part of Scripture.  Without that possibility, I feared, the Scriptures become rather impotent to correct, since they can only tell us what we already think.  As I proceeded, my suspicion never did get extinguished.

The green color in their four-color scheme represents health, and this is where some of my past concerns about Luther’s formulations come to fruit.  Since forgiveness is without remainder, no action (in the scheme of Colors of God, mind you) can please or displease God more than God is currently pleased.  (I’ll get to the Hell bit later.)  Therefore all actual human life, in this system of thought, is to be judged not in terms of obedience or holiness but in terms of health, both physical and psychological.  This is where the strong psycho-therapeutic background of Dave Phillips comes to dominate the conversation, and it’s where the book does not oppose but largely dismisses giant parts of Christian tradition with regards to sexual fidelity, disciplines of prayer, and other such things not because they’re “bad” but because they’re irrelevant in terms of the blue color.  This is also where the authors hint at the possibility of a counter-cultural or prophetic critique of what they refer to as “the kingdom of man” (but don’t give anything like the details that Augustine gives to his civitas terrana) but can’t seem to muster any good reasons why one would want to oppose consumerism, advocate for environmental protection, or perform any of the other (new-left-flavored) actions that they seem to want to commend.  As I noted before, when all human action becomes irrelevant for the big picture (the blue color), there’s little reason to do something as “unhealthy” as to live counter to the prevailing ideologies of the day, and this book provides little reason, other than the avoidance of seeming “religious,” to discipline one’s life in any intelligible fashion.

The red element is inclusive community, and once again, it’s an outgrowth of the previous two.  The only aim of such a community, it seemed as I read, was to make sure nobody got too “religious” or did anything “unhealthy” in terms of contemporary psychological research.  As with the first two colors, the authors showed themselves willing to cherry-pick both Scripture and Christian-era theologians to demonstrate their points, but never did there seem to be even the slightest room for novelty, a thought which challenged the big frame.  In fact, when they addressed the possibility of Hell, they did acknowledge it, because they want to remain orthodox, but they insisted that Hell would be filled not with persecutors (a la Revelation) or those consumed with lustful desire (a la the Sermon on the Mount) but with the “religious,” those who would exclude anyone.  For a book trying so hard to be “conversational,” there was little room for anything like a consideration of other possibilities for interpretation in these matters, and I remembered a thought that I’d formulated back in seminary: to see what people truly value, ask them who’s in Hell.

I have to say at this point (I’m honest to the point of rudeness that way) that this book’s “conversation” format irritates me.  Throughout its pages I kept thinking that it shouldn’t have been a book in the first place but a video production of some sort.  The book is a long transcript of a conversation, complete with requests by one author that another explain a concept just mentioned and interjected jokes (and responses to those jokes) that one expects at a panel discussion but not in the run of a long-form prose essay.  This probably would have worked nicely as a DVD series or an online video-content feed or something else; as a book it doesn’t work that well.  I’m certain that other reviewers will commend it for “thinking outside the box” or making things “dialogical,” but in my mind it’s kicking a field goal at a chess match: it might have been better to do DVD things on a DVD.

The final color, yellow, has to do with engaging pop culture as a site for theological reflection, a rather uncontroversial point which they insist flies in the face of “religious thinking.”  I did find some of their choices for pop culture theology amusing (extended meditations on Green Day’s “Good Riddance/Time of Your Life” and Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” just for starters), but since this is something that I try to do (to the extent that I keep up with pop culture) in my own ministry, I don’t have all that much to say about it.

In sum, I think Colors of God is a good example of one way that folks have taken historical theology (in this case Luther’s doctrine of grace) and attempted to articulate that theology in actual ecclesial communities.  It’s also a helpful reminder that Emergent, whatever else it might be, is a place where radical Lutheran psychotherapy can, for the moment, exist comfortably along side Hegelian evolution-theology and the environmentalist-liberation theologians, and even if the hard-nosed, foul-mouthed Calvinists have left the party, there’s still room for genuine difference in that strange cloud called Emergent.  And for my money, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

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