Ken Howard's Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Between Us and Them and why it rocks
I confess to being a bit jaded when it comes to books about Christianity. When I’m asked to recommend some good books for congregational study and private devotional reading, I usually recommend a book in Hebrew scripture or the New Testament. I think that we Western Christians are often tempted to confuse talking about Christianity and practicing it, and I think that sometimes the current flood of books telling us what Christianity is about can be more of a distraction than a help with respect to deepening discipleship.
So I admit that I picked up Paradoxy with some trepidation. But Brian McLaren is spot on when he says that most of that flood of books, even the best-selling ones, “don’t hold a candle – in terms of content or readability – to this one.” And so I’m tremendously grateful to Ken Howard for giving me the opportunity to read his book and write some reflections on Chapter 5, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past: Christianities that might have been.”
In Paradoxy, Ken Howard, with grace, power, and refreshingly accessibility and conciseness, explores wildly diverse streams within European and American Christianity from the first to the 21st century, takes up many of the issues that they found (and we often still find) most confusing or even contentious, and weaves an open-ended story of how God’s people find room in their hearts for one another and discover that they have found room for God’s Spirit and energy to press further the adventure of Christian discipleship.
As a scholar of Paul’s writings, I particularly appreciated the way Howard teases out in Chapter 5 the ways in which Paul’s work was shaped as much by his lifelong Jewish and Pharisaic identity as by Jesus’ call to serve as apostle to Gentiles. And I appreciated even more Howard’s taking a further theological and missiological step: he acknowledges and celebrates how an Incarnational faith will be expressed differently in different contexts, and that this is both appropriate and necessary.
In Chapter 5, Howard paints in vivid and broad strokes the creative tension between the streams of Christianity represented by Paul on one hand and Peter and James (Jesus’ brother) on the other. Howard generally calls them “Gentile Christianity” and “Jewish Christianity,” terminology that illustrates, I think, the difficulty of Howard’s task as he seeks to explore paradoxes of our faith.
It’s a huge challenge. Many who have try end up either as a kind of accessible but vapid Yoda (whom I’m now picturing standing before a Christian Luke Skywalker saying, “believe, you do, that you are not bound by belief, and then act you must”) or with learned volumes so nuanced, precise, and comprehensive that they leave us lost in fog rather than than illuminated for our journey.
Howard steers skillfully and between these extremes, giving us helpful and informative diagrams. Table 5.1, for example, is very helpful in showing us how much Howard sees as being held in common by the streams of Christianity he examines in the chapter.
In the process, I think he occasionally (and, given his task, inevitably) overgeneralizes or idealizes in less helpful ways. For example, I wouldn’t agree that “it would not be until the time of Constantine that ... diversity of expression (of Christianity) began to be strongly suppressed in favor of uniformity” (p. 68). “Apologists” of the second century such as Irenaeus did their best to suppress works by Marcion, for example, and eventually were so successful in the enterprise that not a scrap of a single copy of any of Marcion’s works survives. Today we call Marcion a “heretic,” a word derived from the Greek heiresis, which simply meant a school of thought or particular community of thinkers. The word got its negative connotation because of the ferocity with which Marcion and other heterodox theologians were condemned by the historical winners in the conflict. But if there were a collection of Marcion’s works I could read, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they revealed that Marcion had called the schools of Irenaeus and others “heresies.”
This may seem like quibbling, but I think it highlights a larger issue. What is “institutional Christianity”? It’s easier to define today, when congregations and denominations incorporate legally, or even in the time of Constantine, when as emperor he decided which bishops would be invited and funded to attend the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed), even though Constantine was continuing to worship his ancestral god, Sol Invictus (the invincible sun). But the phrase “institutional Christianity” can be confusing, and it can become something of a fuzzy or even fictional bogey.
Howard doesn’t veer anywhere near the territory of fiction. I was deeply impressed by how illuminating his vivid portrayals of Paul, Nazarene Christians, Martin of Tours, and Celtic Christianity were, and I think they’re made particularly helpful and appropriately challenging to Western Christians today by Howard’s approach of asking the question “then what?” at every turn. If Jesus is God’s Christ, then what? If we accept that a relationship with Christ necessarily includes a relationship with the Body of Christ, then what? If Paul can say of Peter, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned ... And the other Judeans joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray” (Phil. 2:11-13), and yet both Peter and Paul are saints of the Church universal, then what?
I think Paradoxy could have been even more helpful in Chapter 5 if it explored a little more the intensity of conflict between different schools of Christianity in each of the four historical vignettes he offers: doing so would underscore the paradox that the church (institutional and invisible -- another paradox?) has canonized multiple and conflicting schools of though and praxis, and yet we hold firmly (well, at our best) that God’s Spirit has made us one Body of Christ.
I also think that some amount of blurring of distinctions is necessary to achieve the impressive feat Howard does, giving us a book that is ideal for congregational study as well as personal reading. It is a book that asks questions reflecting deep wisdom and that will generate a great deal of helpful conversation. It’s an important book, particularly in the context of church conflict, and I think it’s wonderful and telling that both Brian McLaren and Paul Zahl, two evangelicals coming from very different contexts and who come to very different conclusions on many issues, have applauded the book, writing the foreword (McLaren) and the afterword (Zahl). It’s a book that would be read and re-read fruitfully across our various theopolitical spectrums in the church, and I look forward to the opportunity to study it with others.