Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review :: Revise Us Again :: Frank Viola

This afternoon I joined many others from my church-community to help a friend move to a new apartment. After we had carted the last box, last couch, last bookshelf up two flights of stairs and milled about for some celebratory Little Caesar’s Hot-N-Ready’s to arrive, a teen let out an exclamation of delight and beckoned me over to the bathroom window. 

“Look down, you can see the neighbor’s koi.”
I looked down, and from our birds-eye perspective, we could see a beautiful fish pond and porch the neighbors had constructed behind their three flat. We stood, leaning over the bathtub, elbows on the bathroom window sill, watching their orange and gold and white bodies oscillate slowly in the water.
I’ve seen koi before. I’m usually not a big fan. I think of them like I think of goldfish--carp in a cage, bred to be pretty but vulnerable in the bigger fish-eat-fish ocean. But from this perspective, gazing down from thirty feet up, with the Chicago rain falling out of a hard grey sky, these fish were beautiful. A hint of nature among the bricks and concrete.
I enjoyed parts of Frank Viola’s Revise Us Again: Living from a Renewed Christian Script. I also was annoyed with parts. The book has its up and downs. 
I don’t want to focus on Revise Us Again as a whole. Initially because it feels a bit too scattered to draw out a single guiding thesis (though the theme--or is it a conceit--of revising the scripts we are practiced in in practicing our faith does run constant and true throughout form beginning to end). But more pressingly, I don’t want to give my page by page response to Viola’s book because all my attention is caught by Viola’s Afterword appended to the body of the text.

My purpose made clear, let me pause to give a quick overview of the book’s positives and negatives. Positively, Revise Us Again names many unhelpful or even destructive assumptions and practiced instincts in how we go about faith. I wish someone had give me a copy of this book as I started college. Viola’s discussion of God’s three-fold speaking and the related three spiritual conversational styles would have saved me from some frustration when I was dumped unexpectedly into the Christian subculture (predominantly the Quoter SCS, in Viola’s paradigm). Viola provides honest analysis of the varied ways we talk about experiences of God’s presence is refreshingly straightforward, clear of rhetorical flourishes that obscure the phenomenology and theology of what we experience. Good things.
On the downside, the book sometimes reads like a list of religious pet peeves. The casual tone sometimes verges into muddy turns of phrase. I often wanted to know the conversations behind Viola’s statements. The endnotes are sparse; I feel like I’m reading someone’s offhand opinion rather than the product of years of reflection on Christian experience. Overall, reading the book wasn’t a waste of time, but the book fails to set itself apart from the others crowding my shelves (or the shelves of your local bookstore).
At least, the book failed to stand out until I finished Viola’s Afterword. I found myself thinking back over these final pages one day, two days, three days after I’d set the book back on my bookshelf. 
Viola subtitles the Afterword “The Three Gospels.” He doesn’t say anything radical here, nothing radical, nothing particularly well-reasoned. He outlines three versions of the gospel: a libertine gospel, a legalist gospel, and “Paul’s gospel.” The first two are familiar enough. Listen, however, to how Viola describes the third gospel:
“Instead of focusing on the demands of God, Paul’s gospel focuses on the spiritual reality of what actually happens to those who have trusted in Christ when He died and rose again. It takes its view from behind the eyes of God--not from the earth but from the heavens
“Paul’s gospel confidently proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is this earth’s true Lord. It declares the glories of Jesus and unflinchingly proclaims what God has done for all who submit to His lordship. The gospel that Paul preached includes salvation by grace through faith. It includes the call to repent, believe on Christ, and be baptized. It is a call to leave the world system and enter the kingdom of God--to move from the old fallen order into God’s order. It includes the promise of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
“In Paul’s gospel, the standards of God are neither ignored nor rationalized into irrelevant oblivion (as in the gospel of the libertine). On the other hand, the standards of God are never presented as demands by which [sic] our acceptance by God is tied (as in the gospel of the legalist). . . .
“Instead, Paul’s gosepl is rooted in the unconditional acceptance, security, and wealth that those who have trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior enjoy. For this reason, whenever Paul present a standard of God, he always presents it from this vantage point: It is the conduct that those who are in Christ naturally exhibit.”
This handful of paragraphs keeps returning to mind. This gospel sounds strikingly familiar to the gospel I proclaim, the gospel that gets me occasionally accused of universalism and occasionally accused of works-righteousness. Similar, but slightly different. In Viola’s words, I hear what I believe from a slightly different perspective--like looking down from a second story window.
Viola formulates the gospel as it show up in Paul’s letters into a three part pattern. First, Paul reminds believers of “their true identity in Christ.” Viola adds that Paul “also reminds them of the all-sufficiency of Christ who has come to dwell inside them.” Second, Paul outlines how those who are in Christ live. Third, Paul, according to Viola, “exhorts the believers to live according to their true identity rather than according to their false identity.”
I usually see Jesus on the road, walking, calling people to come and follow him. Discipleship is my decided metaphor for the gospel. Jesus liberates us by his call and then calls us to follow him in hope to a new creation community. Viola emphasizes God’s indwelling Spirit that makes us new, that changes who we are. One of my favorite passages from scripture is 2 Cor 5.14-21. In this I read vv 17-18 as the basis for a call, a mission, a participation in God’s work of reconciliation by testifying to it, proclaiming the new creation that has been born out of Jesus’ obedient life, death, and glorious resurrection. Viola comes at this from a different angle. The center of the text for him seems to be vv 16-17, “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” The gospel is the same, but the perspective is a few storeys shifted.
I like this. This is beautiful. Usually I back quickly away from versions of the gospel that tie Jesus’ gospel too closely to personal transformation. I believe that personal transformation is just one moment in God’s redemption of people, a renewal of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham, to all the Israelites at Sinai. But from alongside Viola, this emphasis on personal re-creation and personal indwelling by the Spirit of Christ looks strangely true.

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