Return from Dormancy

The blog is temporarily returning from dormancy, although I probably won’t be that active on it over the next few months.

You also may or may not have noticed that I am currently posting links on Delicious. You can find a link to my account on the sidebar, with the five most recent links below it. Even if there aren’t any links posts on the blog itself, you will be able to find all of the links that I would have posted there (and probably a few more besides).

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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21 Responses to Return from Dormancy

  1. Miss you on twitter=a light has gone out there

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Mary Douglas – Purity and Danger
    Excellent work.

    I don’t think anyone can read Leviticus at all well without first going through Douglas work here. It is a must read. It is humbling and rather shocking how so many learned and thoughtful people through the ages have got the legislation in the Torah so utterly wrong. She has modified her opinions on Leviticus in later work, but her earlier views still need to be taken into account as at least the first stab at an adequate explanation.

    Though much work remains to be done, I think that we are heading towards a much greater understanding of what religious morality in general, and Christian morality specifically, are. Douglas, William Ian Miller, Jonathan Haidt, Alasdair MacIntyre are all very helpful in this regard. We await someone who can bring us a full synthesis.

    Douglas is also highly suggestive on a whole host of other topics besides purity, like, for example, the role of ritual.

    Bonald at Throne and Article has a nice review of the book here. The particular quote caught my eye:

    Douglas argues that we have it even in modern secular society, except instead of calling things “impure” we call them “dirty”. An example would be getting food on one’s clothes. This doesn’t really cause anyone any harm, and we don’t regard either clothing or food as inherently evil. Still, we object to their combination, because we like to have things in their proper place: food here, apparel there.

    I find it interesting that one of the foremost polemicists against religious purity ideas, Richard Beck, is also a notorious slob in his personal appearance, even referring to his own dressing style as “homeless chic.”


    I’ve also started David Bentley Hart’s book too, and it’s actually been pretty disappointing so far. I rather dislike his arrogant polemical style.

    1. The God of classical theism is, of course, not an object in space and time, and so cannot be proved or disproved by empirical methods. So far, so good. However, the God of the Bible (and of many other religious traditions) does acts in history and performs miracles in space and time, and there is at least a plausible argument that that kind of God is amenable to investigation by empirical methods.
    2. The New Atheists may focus more than previous anti-theists on disproving God using the methods of empirical science, but it is disingenuous to suggest that they completely neglect philosophical arguments that actually do apply to the God of classical theism.
    3. Hart is just plain wrong on a few things. For example, the research (see here.) shows that the average believer often shows marked tendencies to describe a rather limited, anthropomorphic God, though one can push that too far.

    I’m not saying that the New Atheists don’t say a lot of silly, irrelevant stuff about God, nor am I saying that the arguments they have which do engage with classical theism are actually dispositive, but Hart’s characterization of the issues is not always entirely correct.

    But this is more a series of gripes based on the opening of the book and what I have heard him say in the media lately. I will have to finish it to say more.

    • Mary Douglas’s work is indeed fantastic—both stimulating and insightful. While I may have a number of differences with her on the specifics of Leviticus, she has been one of the most perceptive authors when it comes to the general logic of the levitical system (have you read her Leviticus as Literature?). Her book on Numbers is good too, if memory serves. She was a fascinating person as well: in addition to her numerous intellectual achievements, she was a lifelong committed Roman Catholic and married to the director of the Conservative Research Department in the UK.

      Hart’s style is very off-putting, although not as bad in that book as in his Atheist Delusions. His content usually provides enough helpful material to reward the reader, though.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Hart is almost as bad as Edward Feser. Have you read The Last Superstition? It’s one of the most obnoxious books I’ve ever read, however much substance it contains. Feser’s personality, and the offputting and sometimes outright misleading terminology in which classical theism is expressed, prevented me from fully understanding what the classical theists were saying. In fact, I was a classical theist all along, but didn’t fully understand that until reading (and rereading) this post by Derek Rishmawy.

      • No, I haven’t read that book. I agree with you regarding the highly objectionable style of Hart, though. I would be interested to know what you would make of the less polemical Hart books—things such as The Beauty of the Infinite.

  3. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I think it worthy of notice, though no one else seems to have commented on it, that Rachel Held Evans has endorsed gay sexual relationships and explicitly disclaimed any identity as an Evangelical. I think this where she has pretty obviously been heading for a long time, and I have to say I am rather relieved. Now that she has gone her own way and is really just another liberal Christian, it is my hope that self identified Evangelical bloggers will show some restraint and just stop engaging with her. (My own urge to comment at her blog has almost completely disappeared.) She is not a particularly reasonable or respectful dialogue partner, and she’s agreed to go her own way. Given that the more conservative precincts of the church are more vital than the liberal ones, this required a certain amount of courage on her part. Best to let her go graciously.

    I also wanted to comment on a story at her blog about a church, operating within a conservative denomination, that affirmed gay sexual relationships. What struck me about the whole thing was not how the evil conservative denomination shut down the church, but how easily the liberal church just . . . folded. There was absolutely no reason the church could not have gotten non-profit status in Canada. That’s kind of the problem with liberal churches: they tend to require the backing pr at least the structure of institutions founded, and often still maintained, by more traditional believers. I know Tony Jones has been beating the drum about how liberal believers need to cut the cord in order to truly prosper, but he doesn’t seem to have many takers.

    • Where exactly did she do that? Her approval of gay relationships has always been clearly tacit. However, I am not sure that I have seen explicit statements from her on the subject, nor have I seen an explicit disidentification from evangelicalism. The latter would particularly surprise me, although it would definitely be a welcome development.

      I recently engaged with her comments on contraception here and here. I think that RHE is evangelical, because my understanding of evangelicalism is that it is more sociological than theological. If RHE were to affiliate with the United Methodists or something like that, I think that it would be for the best. In engaging with RHE my chief interest has never been in RHE herself, but in her target audience, which is very much evangelical, whatever she may be.

      And, yes, I think that you are right about more liberal churches. While I could see a point in attending a liberal mainline church—which can be great for networking and social climbing—a more liberal evangelical church is unlikely to have either spiritual vibrancy, theological orthodoxy, or social cachet in its favour.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        I couldn’t believe they just gave up. I mean if the church and its community were really all that great, shouldn’t they have been able to keep it together?

        There are a few very serious and devout theological liberals, but it’s a tiny, tiny niche. If devoutly religious people in the West are a sideshow, devoutly religious liberals are, to quote a great movie, a sideshow of a sideshow.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      RE: Evangelical identity
      I was referring to this series of tweets here, here and here. There was another comment on her blog, which I don’t care to look up, about how she basically has gone over to the mainline. She apparently now attends a United Methodist church.

      I agree that Evangelical is more of a sociological category than a theological category. Nonetheless, a generally orthodox or at least more traditional theology, and the more traditional moral standards that go with it, are an important part of the sociological mix, and anyone who takes positions which contradict those things is going to find themselves in a high degree of tension with the sociological grouping. If you’re John Stott and you question something like the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, but are still solidly within the mainstream on issues, you can still remain within the sociological grouping without too much discomfort. But Evans has conflicted with the Evangelical mainstream on a multitude of theological and other issues, and so found herself in a highly ambiguous position with regard to the group. In any event, an explicit disavowal of a particular identity would seem to be pretty definitive.

      RE: Active homosexual relationships
      She has always expressed a certain reluctance to abandon the traditional position on gay sex, given the rather formidable hurdles, hurdles so obvious even she can recognize them, to reconciling active gay relationships with the Bible. It is true though that she has been very open to dialoguing with gays in active sexual relationships, and that her position on sex/gender strongly had always implied an acceptance of (monogamous) gay sexual relations..

      Then this:

      I met gay Christians who felt compelled by Scripture and tradition to commit their lives to celibacy (Side B) and gay Christians who felt fee in Christ to pursue same-sex relationships (Side A). . . . I realize that standing with and affirming LGBT Christians—both those who identify as Side A and those who identify as Side B (though, for reasons I can explain later, I’m personally inclined toward A)— puts some of my work in jeopardy.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:
      • Interesting. I hadn’t seen those remarks. I don’t follow her on Twitter nowadays. She blocked my main Twitter account a year or so ago and I couldn’t be bothered to follow her on my private account, which I reserve for more worthwhile tweeters. Besides, on the occasions when I have tried to engage directly with her on other forums, she has never responded.

        As a principally sociological movement, I think that evangelicalism has always had great potential for reinvention from within. While it may have, for the most part, theologically conservative roots, I am far from convinced that these absolutely define the movement or preclude its development in a more liberal direction.

        I am not sure how straightforward RHE’s disavowal of evangelicalism is. A number of us have complicated relationships to evangelicalism (for instance, my own relationship to evangelicalism is far from clear). From a liminal theological position, someone like RHE is well situated to appeal to evangelical identity, dependent on rhetorical expediency, either as something that she still has or as something that she is purposefully leaving behind. People who flounce out of churches and movements often like to draw out their departure for maximum effect and attention.

        She continues to speak primarily into an evangelical context and to take conservative evangelicalism as her primary foil, which makes me think that, whatever her current church affiliation, sadly she hasn’t truly ‘left’.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Former theologically conservative Christians, including former Evangelicals, are a dime a dozen. It seems like almost everybody in liberal churches is some sort of refugee from a theologically conservative church. That’s their market.

        Though I agree that evangelicalism cannot be defined by its beliefs, I do not think that it could exist at all without a core of people who are there for the (somewhat) more traditional theology. Of course, all sorts of things get built up around that, and then they tend to take on a life of their own. But for the movement to go on without the more traditional theology, I think it would have to find some other flag to rally around. And I don’t see any such thing at hand.

        For a brief moment there, it seemed like evangelicalism might develop a lasting liberal wing, much like the mainline churches, but the more amorphous, congregational nature of Evangelicalism has proved much more difficult ground for liberalism to gain a foothold in. Without a stable bureaucratic structure to take hold of, theological liberalism tends to just die on the vine.

  4. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    You’ve recommended particular works by N.T. Wright, so I was wondering if you have any specific recommendations from the following (or any books you recommend staying away from).

    Peter Leithart (besides Against Christianity, of course)
    Cornelius Van Til
    John Stott
    James B. Jordan
    Rowan Williams
    Stanley Hauerwas

    I think you’ve recommended almost all of Oliver O’Donovan, and I think we’d agree the cultural liturgies series from James K.A. Smith is the highlight of his work so far.

    • Peter Leithart: A House For My Name, Priesthood of the Plebs, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary series), Deep Exegesis, Defending Constantine. A number of these are recommended with reservations, but all of the works are worthy theological interlocutors.

      Cornelius Van Til: I would give Van Til a miss, to be honest. While Van Til was an important early influence in my thinking, much of my theological development has involved unworking his position in various ways.

      John Stott: The Cross of Christ is still a rewarding read.

      James Jordan: If you have the opportunity to listen to things on audio for extended periods of time, the huge collection of his MP3s is worth getting. They tend to sell it at an incredibly reduced price from time to time (I picked up mine for ~$100, I think): I definitely wouldn’t buy it at the current price. Through New Eyes is his major work. Law of the Covenant and his Judges commentary are also worthwhile. He is an acquired taste in many respects: I didn’t really ‘get’ him at my first two readings. Even sympathetic readers will often find themselves decidedly unconvinced by his approaches. That said, there are few more stimulating Bible teachers out there.

      Rowan Williams: Dostoevsky, On Christian Theology, The Lion’s World, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, Faith in the Public Square. Whatever one thinks of Williams’ specific theological viewpoint, he is a valuable person to interact with. I’ve really enjoyed all of the books listed above.

      Stanley Hauerwas: I would start with The Hauerwas Reader, to get an idea of his theological perspective (which will tie in nicely to your recent reading of MacIntyre), and Hannah’s Child, to get a sense of the man.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:


        Rowan Williams is a fatuous and self righteous ding dong, but he’s a very learned and intelligent fatuous and self righteous ding dong.

        I often strongly disagree with Hauerwas, but he is well worth engaging with. That said, I haven’t read any of his actual books.

      • I have benefited much from reading Rowan Williams at his best, no matter how much I may disagree with what he stands for within the wider church situation.

        The Hauerwas Reader is great for an extensive taste of Hauerwas’s theological range.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Williams seems like someone who was born for the academy, and it would have been better for all concerned, including for him, if he had never left it.

      • I largely agree with that. He can occasionally communicate very effectively to a broader audience—The Lion’s World being one such example—but he was not an effective leader in the church, nor did he take the necessary stand on watershed issues of the day. He is a brilliant mind, though, and I have learned a great deal from engaging with his thought. I would sooner read a book by Williams than 95%+ of the other authors in my library.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        What about The Wound of Knowledge? A friend recommended it to me.

        Also, he apparently has his own introduction to Christianity: Tokens of Trust. Added that one to the list.

      • I haven’t read either of those.

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