Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

The Astonished Heart

I picked up the book The Astonished Heart by Robert Capon at a book sale because I had heard many good things about The Supper of the Lamb by the same author. I was expecting a 5 star read on this one, so I was very surprised when this turned out to be a sad little book. Throughout the book Capon gives an overview of the "dismal swamp" (his words, not mine) that is Church History, and makes application to what we should do in our modern situation. Needless to say, the “dismal swamp” view of most of the history of Christianity is rather pessimistic, and I think that Capon views the Church this way because he misses the point of the big story in Scripture.

He starts the book with the common mantra that Christianity is not a religion. Capon simply assumes this to be true, and spends no time proving it from Scripture. In fact, he feels quite free to criticize structures put into place by God in Scripture (for example, the Davidic monarchy) when he feels that they move the people of God closer to the idea of religious institution. Based on this assumption he grades the people of God throughout history on three criteria. First, do they view their community as a religion? If so, they lose points in Capon’s book. Second, do they show signs of institutionalizing themselves: a hierarchy, officers, creeds and rules? If so, once again, they lose points. Third, do they maintain the catholicity of their faith?

Before I begin talking about all the things I found appalling about this book, I do want to be fair and talk about what I view as the strengths of this book. Despite the fact that I disagree with almost all of Capon’s conclusions, I understand the attitude behind them. He is very concerned that people see the special nature of the community of Christ’s body and not fall into the trap of viewing Christianity as one religion among many. He correctly dislikes the idea that Christianity is a philosophy centered on its ideas and doctrines rather than the redeemed people of God centered on the Eucharistic celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection for our salvation. So far, I agree wholeheartedly. However, from this beginning, he concludes that the body of Christ, proclaiming the story of redemption should avoid stepping into the realms of politics, ethics and philosophy. These things, he believes, put the Church in the realm of religion and cause it to be intolerant of sinners rather than welcoming and open. He rightly sees that Jesus didn’t come to establish a new moral philosophy so that we can all be good little boys and girls, but he stops short of the true goal. The story of redemption is the story of the renewal of the entire creation. Jesus didn't come to propose a new philosophy, but He did come to establish a new society, the Church. And the Church is not only a new society, but a new humanity, the beginning of the eschatological state of the human race. As Peter Leithart writes in his book Against Christianity, "...the Church presented herself not as another 'sect' or cult that existed under the umbrella of the polis; she was an alternative governing body for the city and the beginning of a new city."

By refusing to allow the Church to develop along organizational lines, Capon denies the military mission of the Church, given it by Jesus Himself, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20, NASB) As we shall see, it appears that Capon has a particular problem with the “teaching them to observe” part of this commandment. In light of all this, Capon does not see the Church as the triumphant body of Christ which grows and matures in the world, conquering and filling the earth. Rather, he sees the Jerusalem church as a pretty good model and almost everything afterward as a mess.

Tied to this problem is Capon’s view of Scripture. He states that the Scriptures are wholly inspired by God, and yet done in such a way that men simply wrote down what was in their heads, and by God’s providence it so worked out to be just what God wanted them to write. He makes a great point of saying that God’s sovereignty in these matters does not rule out human freedom. I also agree entirely with this. However, when he goes on to speak of Scripture, he seems to forget the providential part of this, and focuses wholly on the human side. So, while giving lip service to the doctrine of inspiration, Capon undermines this by making many liberal assumptions about the Scripture. He presents the Pentateuch as being put together during the Babylonian exile, rather than the Biblically attested Mosaic authorship. He claims that someone other than Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus as opposed to the Biblically attested Pauline authorship. He even criticizes many of the ideas in these later (in his view) epistles as showing evidence of growing institutionalization in the Church. Against all of these assumptions we must stand firm in our understanding of the nature of Scripture. Yes, Scripture came into being as men wrote the thoughts in their heads. However, because of God’s providential control, these words are also the very words of God, pure and simple. They are, as Paul tells Timothy, “god breathed.” Therefore, when we set ourselves up to criticize the statements of Scripture, we are criticizing God Himself and not merely the men who penned these words.

Next, because of his late view on the Pentateuch and the compilation of the Old Testament, Capon misunderstands the whole history of Israel. He considers the Exodus and Exile periods to be the high water marks and the Davidic monarchy the low point. Contrary to this, the Davidic monarchy is at the center of God’s plan for his people in the Old Testament. While there is no time for me to fully make this case in a book review, I will point out that the Old Testament passage most often quoted in the New Testament is Psalm 110, a kingship-oriented psalm. Christ as king and emperor is the most pervasive Christological image in the New Testament, and the proclamation of Jesus as King is at the heart of the gospel.

Naturally with this perspective, Capon views Constantine with disdain, and while recognizing the beauties and longevity of Christendom, considers the whole of Christianity in the Middle Ages to be fundamentally flawed. He traces this flaw throughout the Reformation to the corporate model of the Church adopted in the 19th century. He has a many actually good criticisms of the modern state of the Church, and I sympathize with his perspective just as I sympathize with the concerns that drove him to write this book. However, like his criteria in the beginning of his book, his offered solutions are misguided. He suggests two models which he terms the Alcoholics Anonymous church model and the Marginal-Church model. The ideal for him is a church with, “no established hierarchy, no ministerial offices, no budget, no local paid staff, no endowments, no governing boards, and no real estate. It meets other people’s buildings, uses other people’s coffeepots, and gets its own members to spring for the doughnuts.” In other words, he wants the Church to return to a state of infancy. However, though this may be possible in some cases, it will be impossible for the Church to stay here. If a church is serious about the teachings of Scripture and fulfilling the Great Commission, then the church will grow. If the Church grows it will need those in a teaching office. It will also develop needs among the people. In order to give the teachers the time to devote to the word, officers will have to be appointed to see that people’s needs are met. And so on through the development seen in the book of Acts and straight on up to Elders, Deacons, Bishops, etc. all over again. Growth and maturation is inevitable. I might think I want my kids to stay little forever, but that’s not the way God designed them. They will grow and change throughout their lives, and my relationship with them will change as well. This is not a lamentable state, either in my children or in the body of Christ. Rather, it is the way God designed things to work.

To conclude, it is odd that he praises the Exilic Jews for being “people of the book” while he often marginalizes or ignores the teaching of the Book himself. For example, he thinks that it would be great if churches expected their members to give a percentage of their income rather than just giving toward the budget goal. “Get people to compare what they’re now giving (usually one percent or less) with what they might give if they moved up into the vicinity of, say, five percent.” The Bible actually gives a good number to start with: a tithe of ten percent. As a deacon in our church I know that most of the people in our church do tithe faithfully, because it is taught from the pulpit and from the Bible. There’s no need for the false modesty of suggesting five percent, when God has already given a suggested minimum of ten percent.

A far more problematic example of rejecting the book is the fact that he laments that many churches would fire their pastor for committing adultery. Aren’t we all about forgiveness and restoration? Well, yes we are. And this pastor would be forgiven and welcomed as a member of the church. However, there are requirements for the office of pastor given by Paul in 1 Timothy 3. Of course, Capon believes this was not written by Paul and views it as part of the unfortunate development of “institutionalized religion” in the Church. This leads him also to give the example of the fictional Reverend Elizabeth Smathers, who becomes the pastor of Old First Steeple Church. She soon begins a love affair with the town librarian Ms. Winsome and moves her into the parsonage. After their relationship sours, Ms. Winsome sues Reverend Elizabeth for sexual harassment, and the church people, intolerant wretches, have the un-Christ like gall to remove poor Elizabeth from the office of minister. For shame!

I don’t even know where to begin with that example, but if I did, I’m sure that Robert Capon would accuse me of being moralizing and intolerant. Just like Paul, James and Peter. Yuck. It is true that the Church has many problems, and has had problems throughout history. However, these problems can never be solved by giving lip service to God’s word in every area that we like and rejecting anything in it that conflicts with our sensibilities. We can either stand in judgment over Scripture or allow Scripture to stand in judgment over us. The only thing is, if we choose to do the former, we will have to forgive the watching world when it doesn’t recognize us as “people of the Book.”

1/5 stars


DavidS said…
a church with, “no established hierarchy, no ministerial offices, no budget, no local paid staff, no endowments, no governing boards, and no real estate. It meets other people’s buildings, uses other people’s coffeepots, and gets its own members to spring for the doughnuts.”

This informal, idyllic home church model has been offered as "the answer" every few years since the 1960s. It is welcomed each time as though no one had thought of it before.