Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Note from Rowland (Feb. 25. 2010):

Robert Inchausti, also author of a couple of books about Thomas Merton, also Spitwad Sutras: Classroom Teaching as Sublime Vocation, and The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People. He is professor of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

I only recently discovered this author, and he's brilliant. I don't pretend to understand everything he wrote, but his main thesis in Subversive Orthodoxy (3rd printing December 2005) is pretty straight-forward: '[These] Christian thinkers [see a list of some of them below] aren't all that interested in defending their faith... Their thinking is not strictly speaking "apologetics" but something more engaged - an attempt to "say" what the world looks like through eyes transformed by an encounter with the living God... (p. 181)... 'They desire to live in the truth even more than they desire to be effective in the world... [For them] injustice is not something to be defeated. It must be constantly combated. When it disappears in one place it reappears in another... Evil manifests itself more in an absence of care, in an absence of perception, and in the negation of Being than it does in the presence of stupidity, violence, or even hatred' (188).

Here's the sort of sentence you have to study carefully - and then you may not understand it:

'The experience of a trinitarian model of human communication makes it possible to talk systematically about contingency, angst, and moral confusion without having to explain them away as mere epiphenomena of simpler structures of cause and effect...' (179).

You get the idea?

Here's a good teaser from a blog I came across:


Avant-Garde Orthodox

("orthodox" in the broadest sense)

Interesting article on what sounds like a good book

It's not easy to place thinkers as diverse as Walker Percy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., G.K. Chesterton, and Northrop Frye into the same category. But Robert Inchausti, English professor at California State Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, says they were all avant-garde orthodox Christians. No matter their different political, denominational, or literary positions, they all sought to be faithful to Jesus while engaging the world. In Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, Inchausi discusses Christian thinkers, writers, and activists who challenged secular worldviews on their own turf, yet remained thoroughly Christian.

Who are the avant-garde Orthodox?

These were orthodox Christian thinkers and artists who were not theologians and made important and somewhat revolutionary contributions to various secular disciplines. They're interesting people because they're both subversive of the existing modern order, but they are not subversive of the church or subversive of the faith.

They have a unique status as people who model for us how it is possible for believing Christians to enter into dialogue with the secular culture in a way that revolutionizes and transforms the secular culture and doesn't just protest against it or isolate from it.

If you look at some of the major Christian artists and thinkers and social critics over the last hundred years, you find a variety of political, artistic, and intellectual schools within which they operate. Yet, they still share Christ as their major inspiration. You have somebody like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who from an American political perspective would be very conservative. He single-handedly did away with Marxism as an attractive philosophy for Paris intellectuals. And at the same time you have somebody like Dorothy Day, whose entire witness to the poor in the United States was to defend small families and small farms and collectives and indigenous poor against a social Darwinism that she thought was running away with American culture during the Cold War years.


Some of those subversive orthodox Christians mentioned are

- Walker Percy
- Dorothy Day
- Jacques Ellul
- Søren Kierkegaard
- Jack Kerouac
- Marshall McLuhan
- Ivan Illich
- Andy Warhol
- Pasternak
- Wendell Berry
- Thomas Merton
- E.F. Schumacher
- Dostoyevsky
- Chesterton
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Solzhenitsyn
- Rene Girard


And a comment:

These were orthodox Christian thinkers and artists who were not theologians and made important and somewhat revolutionary contributions to various secular disciplines. They're interesting people because they're both subversive of the existing modern order, but they are not subversive of the church or subversive of the faith...



A mixed review:

Review By Dan Clendenin

Robert Inchausti, Subversive Orthodoxy; Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 219pp.

         One of the best things going in Christian publishing today is Brazos Press, an imprint of the otherwise Calvinist and conservative Baker Book House. Under the guidance of editor Rodney Clapp, Brazos is marketing genuinely creative, provocative. and broadly Christian authors who want to think and write with timely relevance at the intersection of contemporary culture and Christian faith. Robert Inchausti, professor of English at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, for example, explores the cultural critiques of twenty thinkers who, whatever their many diverse differences, all took great exception to the received wisdom of their day. Dorothy Day led the way in social justice, as did Martin Luther King. Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich offered big-picture critiques. Walker Percy and Boris Pasternak were novelists and, as such, two of our best theologians (none of the twenty figures he explores are theologians in the technical sense). Inchausti organizes these twenty subverters of conventional wisdom under five main chapter headings: the soul under siege, the novel as countermythology, antipolitical politics, macrohistorical criticism, and the role of the Christian mysteries in the life of the modern mind. I found these categories rather broad, and something of an artificial stretch to place radically diverse thinkers under each theme. Further, trying to tackle so many seminal intellectuals means he can devote only five to ten pages to each. The result felt choppy. GK Chesterton and Goethe in four pages each? King and McLuhan get about a dozen pages each, but these were "long" by the book's standards. In such short chapters I found it difficult to enter into the thought of the many subjects about which I was ignorant. If you do not already know Pasternak, William Blake, or Rene Girard, for example, this book might not be the best introduction to their thought. Still, it is a fine contribution for a Christian intellectual to tackle and honor the contributions of these titans and their efforts to map the journey of Christian faith in the real world.


And this from the Facebook page:

"In the early 1960s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a "great writer." As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, "Isn't there any one essential ingredient that you can identify?" Hemingway replied, "Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector."

"The incarnation, like the resurrection, and like the very notion of divinity itself, cannot be reduced to a precept, fact, or a theory; nor is it even, strictly speaking, a doctrine. It is, rather, a revelation that must be experienced in order to be understood, a reality wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, miniaturized into a narrative that proves itself apodictically true by the realities it reveals. The false knowledge that blocks our capacity to experience this shift in awareness from the mundane to the sublime changes from epoch to epoch and from place to place.." - Robert Inchausti (Subversive Orthodoxy).

Monday, February 22, 2010


F W Boreham: Angels, Palms and Fragrant Flowers (F W Boreham on Spurgeon), John Broadbanks Publishing, 2009.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was probably heard by more people in the second half of the 19th Century than any other English-speaking preacher. (Another Baptist preacher - Billy Graham - is said to have been heard in face-to-face crowds by more people in the second half of the next century than any other human being). And the gifted preacher and essayist F W Boreham - one of 'Spurgeon's men' who may have been the last student Spurgeon interviewed for his Pastors' College - has probably been read by more people than any other Baptist in the 20th century.

So when Boreham writes about Spurgeon, it's interesting.

On a snowy morning, on January 6, 1850, the teenager Charles Spurgeon wandered into a Primitive Methodist chapel in a side street in Colchester, 'hoping that some minister would tell him how he might be saved'... The boy under the gallery... 'was only fifteen, and he died at fifty seven. But in the course of the intervening years, he preached the gospel to millions and led thousands upon thousands into the kingdom and service of Jesus Christ' (xiv, 34).

From the age of 20 Spurgeon's sermons were published each week until his death: they 'went on to sell into the millions of copies and were translated into 25 languages' (xv).

A few teasers in a category we might title 'Can you believe this?':

* There were long queues by the five or six thousand people who packed into Spurgeon's Sunday morning services. 'And this sort of thing went on, summer and winter, year in and year out, for a generation. The service was never advertised. Mr Spurgeon's trouble was to keep people away. He was everlastingly imploring his own members to absent themselves in order to make room for... strangers. He had no organ and no choir. The singing was led by a precentor with a tuning fork' (43).

* The secret behind Spurgeon's appeal? Certainly not his appearance. Boreham tells us that Spurgeon was 'by no means a handsome man... [indeed] physically he was one of the least attractive figures in the public life of England. But when he uttered the name of Jesus, he stood transfigured. His soul caught fire. His face literally shone...' (13).

* Another clue? 'He was moved to the depths of his being by his passion for the souls of men' (15). Sometimes Spurgeon would leave home early in the morning, listen to the stories of some thirty or more persons during a whole day, attend a prayer meeting and another meeting at night, and at ten o'clock wonder why he felt faint! He'd forgotten to eat all that time! (48)

We are indebted to Dr. Geoff Pound, who probably knows more about Boreham than anyone else, for this 'Boreham taster on C. H. Spurgeon'. It's worth getting a few copies to give to young aspiring preachers you may know.

Shalom/Salaam/Pax! Rowland Croucher

February 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010


Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri Nouwen by Michael Ford, 1999.

Henri Nouwen, with Thomas Merton, were the first 20th century Catholic writers on Christian Spirituality to be widely read among non-Catholics. (And each of them was criticized for 'never having an unpublished thought.' 'Like Merton', says this biographer, [Nouwen] seemed to feel that, unless he was writing things, he wasn't fully experiencing them. There was a gravitation in both men towards writing too much.'). Many evangelicals, after reading some of Nouwen's books, didn't know they were exposing their minds to the spiritual theology of a Roman Catholic! 'It was possible for him to speak in the morning to a group of left-wing Catholic liberation theologians, lead a lunch-time seminar with Nonconformists, and in the afternoon exhort members of the Religious Right'.

Henri Nouwen broke new ground in other respects as well: he (with ethicist Margaret Farley) was the first Roman Catholic appointment to the Protestant faculty at Yale University. As a scholar in the fields of psychology and theology he had little appetite for statistical research or a critical analysis of biblical texts, respectively. He regarded biblical criticism as inimical to a 'doxological life' of true obedience. A lot of scholarly talk might 'stimulate the curious mind' but doesn't 'stir the listening heart'.

Nouwen believed that it was from the wounded places in himself that he could touch the wounded places in others. He certainly was a troubled - even tormented - man. He would often phone for help or encouragement to friends anywhere in the world at odd hours of the day or night. (He often spent more on phone bills than on rent). He said with great honesty to a friend: 'You might think I'm famous and don't need others... But actually I need you more...' He would complain that his friends didn't care enough about him. In many ways he tested friendships: 'the deprived part of Henri needing to know that he was loved unconditionally...' He 'became a pious conservative' for much of his adult life, 'frightened of making a stand on social issues because he wanted to be friends with the right, the left and the middle'. (Yet he was sometimes criticized by conservative Catholics for sharing the eucharist with all-comers, and 'could happily receive the sacrament from an Anglican woman priest...').

Some of his friends offered interesting counsel: Mother Teresa, after hearing him for ten minutes simply said: 'Well, when you spend one hour a day adoring your Lord, and never doing anything which you know is wrong... you will be fine!'

So what was his problem? It was many-faceted - a complex mix of nature/nurture factors. He longed all his life for affirmation and affection from his father. His mother believed it was wrong to give too much love-through-touch to her son (though she read, avidly, everything he published). He knew he was gay from the age of six, but couldn't tell anyone except a small trusted circle of friends later in his life. To those with a homosexual orientation who asked his advice, he recommended celibacy as a vocation; but although he didn't expect most gay people to be celibate he did expect them to be in a relationship - a covenant relationship - as he would expect of heterosexuals. (His own clerical formation was messed up because 'holiness' was equated with keeping the flesh in check: 'They were to shower in light robes so they never saw each other fully naked; they slept with their arms crossed on their chests above the bed-covers. The body was not to be trusted').

Michael Ford describes Nouwen as 'adolescent' all his life, repressing his sexuality because the Catholic Church offered no way for him to resolve those complexities. And sometimes - especially during his years at Harvard - he 'seemed to take a particularly hardline approach with students towards homosexuality... Some claim he was ruthlessly unsympathetic to a number of gay men... teaching them [that] homosexuality was an evil state of being'. Nouwen's frenetic activity, Ford suggests, was also one of his ways of coping with his struggles in this area. Another was to ask his therapist to hug him non-sexually - sometimes for a long time, and occasionally this reduced Henri to uncontrolled sobbing. After he saw the movie 'Maurice', based on E M Forster's novel about homosexuality between the classes of English society, a friend who was with him wrote: 'As we were driving back... we had to stop on the highway because he was sobbing uncontrollably. He was just terrified. His whole body was shaking. He was so caught up with the story and the dilemma the two main characters were living, because it was his. All I could do was hold him and let him cry. He was really in pieces.'

Finally, a couple of paragraphs from The Genesee Diary which reflect his amazing honesty:

'I have always had a strange desire to be different... I wanted to say, write or do something 'different' or 'special' that would be noticed and talked about. For a person with a rich fantasy life' [for example Nouwen had a lifelong fascination with the circus and its clowns, and also the life and art of Van Gogh] 'this is not too difficult and easily leads to the desired 'success'... You can even preach the Gospel in such a way that people are made to believe that nobody had thought of that before. In all these situations you end up with applause because you did something sensational, because you were "different".

'In recent years I have become increasingly aware of the dangerous possibility of making the Word of God sensational. Just as people can watch spellbound a circus artist tumbling through the air in a phosphorized costume, so they can listen to a preacher who uses the Word of God to draw attention to himself.'

(His friend Jean Vanier wrote: 'Aristotle said that if you are not loved, you seek admiration, and you saw with Henri that double movement: the sense of not being loved and the feeling of loneliness - and a terrific need for admiration...').

I have been enriched by Henri Nouwen's writing for several decades, but reading this biography left me feeling so sad...

(For other reviews etc. see )

Rowland Croucher

January 1, 2010