Friday, June 13, 2014

Philadelphia's Best Buildings, Part 1


Making a list of Philadelphia's 50 best buildings is a well-nigh impossible task. There are simply too many of them for such a small list. In particular, dozens of impressive churches and hundreds of spectacular dwellings must largely be passed over in favor of civic and commercial buildings that prove more distinctive and (often) prominent. Indeed, only 5 churches land on this list, which means such great buildings as St. Peter's Episcopal, The Church of the Gesu, Arch Street Methodist, and Spruce Street (Tenth) Presbyterian must be omitted. Likewise, only three dwellings make the list, one from colonial times and two spectacular 19th century block-long rows which make their impression in their totality even more than in their constituent parts. and this means no Hill-Physick-Keith House, no Thomas Hockley House, no remnant of Rittenhouse Square's elegant residential past, and no example from Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, not even George Howe's famous High Hollow.

Today I begin with two examples two hundred years apart in age (proving that, despite my pronounced aesthetic preference for older architecture, there are still some examples of distinguished 21st-century design).


50. Millennium Hall, Drexel University (223 North 34th Street)


(photo by author)
Millennium Hall, April 2010
(photo by author)

Erdy McHenry's Millennium Hall, built in 2009, was a striking and welcome departure from Drexel University's previous examples of institutional "design." Indeed, apart from the Wilson Brothers' grand 1889-91 Main Building and Frank Furness's 1876 Centennial Bank (now used as the university's alumni office), Drexel's campus was a horror, largely consisting of the worst sort of modernist monstrosities that routinely mar college campuses all over the country.

Millennium Hall, in an instant, changed all that. The staggered, twisting form arrests the eyes in ways that more banal modernist buildings simply do not. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron complains of Millennium Hall's "rough treatment of [its] neighbors," in particular, its "abrupt change in scale from the largely Victorian neighborhood." While her criticism of the Hall's ground floor is justified, this criticism based on context is peculiar, to say the least. For the "context" of this building is not primarily the Victorian neighborhood to its north, but the Drexel Campus to its south, particularly its banal red brick immediate neighbor, Kelly Hall. And such contextual concerns somehow don't figure in her glowing review of McHenry's glitzy, goofy, Hancock Square in the formerly industrial and brick rowhouse Northern Liberties.

Millennium Hall and the spectacular Vic-
torian neighborhood of Powelton to its north,
April 2014 (photo by author)
(photo by author, April 2014)



49. Girard Warehouses (18-30 North Front Street)

The Girard Warehouses at left, with the similarly handsome
Trotter Warehouses on the right, September 2012
(photo by author)
The Girard Warehouses are among the oldest extant commercial structures remaining in Philadelphia, dating to 1810. The stunning simplicity of their design, with stone first floors and red brick on the upper four floors, with simple, sharply cut cornices, makes for a powerful composition. Not long ago they appeared headed for the dustbin of history, long vacant with a collapsed rear wall. Thankfully, Brooklyn-based owners BRP Development Corporation painstakingly rehabilitated the structures and turned them into luxury apartments, assuring their continuance on the streetscape for years to come.

Collapsed rear wall of the Girard Warehouses, July 2007
(photo by author)

Front Street facade of the Girard Warehouses prior to restoration, July 2007
(photo by author)

The restored warehouses, October 2011 (photo by author)

(photo by author)

(photo by author)

(photo by author)




Thursday, June 12, 2014

Philadelphia's Ugliest/Most Unfortunate Buildings, Part 1


As I opined in my previous post, Philadelphia's architectural heritage is second to none in America. This is so despite the best efforts of modernist planners to eradicate much of that heritage through scorched-earth attempts at "urban renewal" in both Old City and Center City West. In both cases the city, its planners, and its architects replaced what they viewed as "outdated" structures with "modern" buildings that reflected the aesthetic sensibilities of their time while simultaneously thumbing their nose at the built environment into which they were plopped down (typical blather about the new creations' "sensitivity to their context" notwithstanding). Indeed, the remaking of Philadelphia along these lines has continued apace for the past 60 years, driven by corporate priorities, the quest for trendiness and, above all, by the dominance of the automobile, a mode of conveyance not particularly well-suited to a city whose street grid and corresponding scale were essentially laid out by its founder in the late 17th century.

The results have not, in my opinion, been pretty. To be sure, many of the gems of the city's past remain, but one has to look harder for them among the behemoths that have increasingly dominated the cityscape. A few of these newer structures have even proven worthy to stand alongside the gems of the past, while others, while not distinguished, at least fail to offend.


Many, however (most?), do offend. Or at least they offend my aesthetic sensibilities. And the scars they have inflicted on the urban landscape are quite pronounced due to their sheer size and corresponding prominence. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are all well and good, but they do not mitigate, and are insufficient to excuse, the banality and, often, sheer ugliness of their designs.


50. Mt. Olive Holy Temple (SE corner, Broad and Jefferson Streets)




This is a church building?! Ugh ...
(photo by author, September 2012)


Philadelphia is singularly blessed and cursed by its sheer volume of impressive ecclesiastical buildings dating from the early 18th to early 20th centuries. Many—a few of which will be spotlighted in forthcoming posts on the city's best buildings—are well-preserved and home to thriving congregations. Others, however, sit abandoned with but a sliver of hope for a future (e.g., Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal at 43rd and Chestnut [see my earlier thoughts here]; Church of the Assumption at 12th and Spring Garden [see here]; Hope Presbyterian at 33rd and Wharton in Gray's Ferry). Alas, others have met (e.g., St. Boniface in Kensington in 2012; St. Bonaventure in Fairhill in 2013) or are now meeting (The Church of the Atonement in Cedar Park) their appointments with the wrecking ball.

The Mt. Olive Holy Temple is emphatically not one of these structures. Not surprisingly, it is not affiliated with either the Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant denominations responsible for these other glorious churches. Instead, it is the flagship church of the Pentecostal Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, whose main claim to fame is its long-held belief in a gender-inclusive Episcopate. Indeed, the church was led by women from its founding in 1924 by Bishop Ida B. Robinson until the accession of Bishop Joseph H. Bell, Sr. in 2001.

Church of the Incarnation
(image@phillybuildings.org)
The enigmatic, forbidding, and windowless triangular structure unfortunately fits in well with its shabby surroundings on its stretch of Broad Street in Lower North Philadelphia. Things were not always so, however. Indeed, in the Victorian age the stretch of North Broad from Fairmount north to Susquehanna was lined with hotels, grand structures like the Metropolitan Opera House, and mansions of the newly-rich industrialists of the period such as Peter Widener, William Elkins, and Robert Foerderer, only a few of which remain standing. In the ultimate irony, Mt. Olive Temple stands on the site of the grand neo-Gothic Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, built in 1870 and abandoned in 1942 because of changing neighborhood demographics, the congregation being absorbed into the present Grace Church and the Incarnation in Port Richmond.


Broad Street north from Master, ca. 1908, with the Church of the Incarnation on the right
(postcard from author's personal collection)


49. Goldtex Apartments (12th and Pearl)


Architect's Rendering of the Newly-Remodeled
Goldtex Apartments (image@goldtexapartments.com)
I will no doubt get in trouble for this one. For years the derelict former Goldtex textile factory, built in 1905, stood prominently just north of Center City in full view of motorists on the Vine Street Expressway, seemingly losing windows and gaining graffiti by the week. Thus when brothers Mike and Matt Pestronk bought the old factory and hired Post Brothers to revamp the property as luxury apartments, rejoicing could be heard throughout the region as another piece in the revitalization of Callowhill ("the Eraserhood") was falling into place. Now, to be fair, the views, especially from the south-facing apartments, are spectacular, the interior furnishings are top-notch, and the concerted effort to make the building environmentally friendly with a green wall and roof, is praiseworthy.



Under Reconstruction, November 2013
(photo by author)



Closeup of new facade, November 2013 (photo by author)


Still … I cannot help but think the building—and neighborhood, right by the old Reading Viaduct and numerous other century-old loft buildings—would have been better served by a straightforward rehabilitation of its gritty, concrete and small-paned glass, starkly industrial facade. I am aware of the "green" rationale for its new glass skin (though the camouflaging of its steel skeleton in such a starkly modern building is surprising). I also am keenly aware of the allure of trendiness in the wake of the startling transformation of nearby Northern Liberties by such aggressively modern structures as the Piazza at Schmidt's. Indeed, the use of composite aluminum colored panels is a significant aspect of the facades of a number of recent projects, including Temple University's new Morgan Hall and PMC's new apartments under construction at 19th and Arch.


Apartments at 1900 Arch Street, with Arch
Street Presbyterian Church at left
(photo by author, May 2014)
Morgan Hall
(image@newagerealty.blogspot.com)

















Nonetheless, I remain skeptical about the ultimate staying power of such architecture. To be sure, it isn't as boring as the plain glass skins that were all the rage in the 70s (more on those anon). Yet they seem so, well, gimmicky, poor and shallow substitutes for the ornamentation and detail that graced the substantial buildings constructed in the pre-War period. And how they will age is anyone's guess, though I have my suspicions. I hope I am proved wrong.




12th Street Looking North, with
Goldtex Textiles in the distance, 1958
(image@phillyhistory.org)
The author with the Goldtex Factory
in the Background, January 2011
(photo by Daniel McGahey)


I leave you with a number of photographs of the Goldtex Building in its previous state of glorious dereliction from January 2010.



(photograph by author)


(photograph by author)


(photograph by author)



(photograph by author)
(photograph by author)



(photograph by author)


(photograph by author)


(photograph by author)


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Architecture of Philadelphia: An Introduction to the Good, the Lost, and the Ugly


I love Philadelphia. "Of course," someone might interject, "it's your hometown." Yes, it is, though I haven't lived in the city or its immediate vicinity for close to 35 years. Moreover, anyone assuming such an assumed scenario simply doesn't know a thing about Philadelphia or its idiosyncratic denizens. The City of Brotherly Love, for all its surface similarities to other American cities, is in many respects sui generis among them; and it is in the city's differences from all other American metropolises that I glory. Indeed, what strikes me most about the town are its distinct dualities: history and modernity, dereliction and striking beauty, and, above all, blue collar grit and the highest of elite cultural offerings. Imagine, if you will, "Rocky" juxtaposed with "The Philadelphia Story"—"Philistines" and "Patricians," to use the taxonomy suggested by historian John Lukacs.

In many respects—despite centuries of changing demographics and the transition from industrialization to a deindustrialized service economy—Philadelphia has retained its unique character, derived from its 17th century Quaker origins. Like its founder, William Penn, Philadelphia's primary virtue is its modesty. Ostentation, trendiness, and self-promotion have never sat well with the civic psyche, and when these vices have been indulged, they have not served the city well. Nevertheless, geography—location smack dab in the middle of the New York-Washington corridor—and relative loss of influence to the south and west—despite its continued standing as the fifth largest city in the land, with a metropolitan area population approaching 7 million people—have conspired to cause this native modesty to morph into a self-loathing based in what can only be described as a congenital inferiority complex. Most Philadelphians, it seems, having unwittingly bought into the wider culture's worldview and associated assumptions, are convinced the grass is greener everywhere else (except, perhaps, Detroit). Such thinking, nowhere more in evidence than in white suburbanites' stereotypically uninformed comments on philly.com, validates the city's oft-repeated nickname of "Negadelphia." More insidiously, however, it has led to huge changes in the city's urban fabric over the past 65 or so years, changes which have done nothing to enhance, and much to diminish, its stature as a great world city.

The Independence Mall Area, circa 1947
(image@www.philadelphiaspeaks.com)
One immediately thinks of three major developments in the second half of the 20th century. The first was undertaken by the National Park Service, who in 1948-63 created the Independence National Historical Park by a concerted scorched earth policy of demolishing 12 square blocks north and east of Independence Hall—save for the lucky few gems that played a role in the forming of the nation. As a result of this urban equivalent of a clear cut of an old growth forest, hundreds of 19th century Victorian buildings, both majestic and prosaic—the very sort which today comprise the bulk of the remainder of fashionable Old City—were summarily demolished, victims both of a shortsighted period architectural prejudice and a desire for colonial uniformity. The resulting "Independence Grass Lot Collection," as blogger GroJLart has memorably dubbed it, is, of course, quite nice for the suburban tourist looking to enjoy a simple experience of our nation's founding. But it is a nightmare both for the committed urbanist and the historian searching for authenticity in the evolution of the city's built environment. And as for the "monumental" modernist public and private buildings erected to frame the new Independence Mall, the less said the better (at least for now).



Independence Mall Today
(image@en.wikimedia.org)


Penn Center in the Early Days of Its Construction,
with City Hall at Left 
(image@philaathenaeum.org)
The second major development was another scorched earth undertaking, namely the creation of the execrable "Penn Center" office development out of the four square blocks taken up by the Pennsylvania Railroad's formidable Broad Street Station and its "Chinese Wall," both of which were demolished in 1953. Like the federal government's wanton destruction of acres of Old City, time has not been kind to the so-called "enlightened" urban renewal policies of famed architect/City Planner Edmund Bacon, let alone the cold, soulless, über-banal building designs of Bacon's starchitect, Vincent Kling. The resulting corporate wasteland, to borrow the memorable words of Prince Charles, resembles nothing more than a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."



Penn Center and Market West Today: What Were
They Thinking? (image@en.wikimedia.org)



The Philadelphia Skyline as it appeared in 1940

(linen postcard dated 11 May 1941,
from the author's personal collection)
Such developments, unfortunate as they may have been, nonetheless pale in significance in comparison with the fateful decision in the 1980s to jettison the informal "gentlemen's agreement" according to which no building would rise to a height taller than the great Calder statue of William Penn atop City Hall (548'). (for my previous ruminations on this subject, see my post here.) This agreement not only resulted in a flat skyline, with a host of 490' or so skyscrapers in the blocks surrounding City Hall. Never mind that, despite two prominent older classics from the early '30s (PSFS, PNB), most of these (fairly) tall skyscrapers were of hideous Penn Center vintage. More importantly, that agreement manifested a civic deference to tradition and to splendor—John McArthur, Jr.'s City Hall, at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets, and the terminus of the splendid Benjamin Franklin Parkway, still dominated the skyline—that immediately distinguished Philadelphia from every other American city. 



View of Philadelphia Skyline from Belmont Plateau, October 1984
(photo by author)




One Liberty Place, October 2012
(photo by author)
However, with the construction of Helmut Jahn's 945' One Liberty Place in 1987, the Quaker City's inherent architectural modesty—the public face, as it were, of its defining civic virtue—was discarded in one fell swoop. It matters little that the Chrysler Building-wannabe One Liberty Place is better than most buildings constructed since the end of World War II. The significance of this move is nicely captured by architectural historian Francis Morrone:
I don't think it matters if the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building had been put there. Some vital part of the city's soul—one of the last things that made Philadelphia better than other American cities—was forever lost in the reckless decision to allow this skyward development (p. 162).
In the three decades since that fateful decision, the march of taller-than-Billy Penn skyscrapers has inexorably marched down the Market Street corridor west of City Hall. These include the good (Bell Atlantic Tower, Mellon Center), the mediocre (Two Liberty Place, the memory stick-shaped Comcast Center), and the just plain ugly (the G. Fred DiBona, Jr. Building). As I write, Comcast is proceeding with their plans to construct the tallest building yet—indeed, the tallest building between New York and Chicago—the 1121' Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, on the very spot I attended college back in the 1970s, 18th and Arch Streets. To be sure, there are many who applaud such developments, seeing such construction as a sign of the city's vitality and imagining it to be a sign the city still matters in the 21st century. I am not one of them. What I see in such developments, and in the inane belief that such monstrosities as One Liberty Place and the Comcast Center are two of the five "Top Buildings or Works of Architecture in Philadelphia," is Philadelphia, or Philadelphians, conforming themselves and their patterns of thought to the mainstream American worldview, like the Israelites of old conforming to the Canaanites they ultimately supplanted in the land.

Philadelphia Skyline from Boathouse Row, August 2008
(photo by author)

Skyline as seen from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, September 2010
(photo by author)

But Philadelphia is not, and should not strive to be, New York, let alone such purveyors of shallow glitz like Dallas, Atlanta, or any number of auto-centric, fashionable Sunbelt cities. Indeed, I still believe that Philadelphia, despite its multifarious economic and social problems, is better than other American cities, though its true greatness is not found in the places many of its would-be defenders imagine it to be found. In particular, I concur with the aforementioned Morrone—a New Yorker, by the way—that "architecturally, Philadelphia, not Chicago or New York, is in my opinion the greatest American city" (p. vi). Indeed, no other city has such a wealth of distinguished architecture from every era of the nation's history, from the 17th to the 21st century. Despite this, it is sobering to think that what remains, particularly from the Victorian era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is only the remnant of what once dominated the streetscape of America's 3rd-largest city. Their good intentions aside, one can only be thankful that the modernist purveyors of such wanton destruction of the city's built environment didn't get their hands on more buildings in their misguided attempt at "urban renewal."

I am nothing if not opinionated. And so, over the course of dozens of lengthy perambulations around my hometown over the years, I have compiled lists of 50 of the best, ugliest/most unfortunate, and lost/lamented buildings in Philadelphia. Over the next few months I plan on posting these, in the hope that my fellow Philadelphians would learn to appreciate what we have been bequeathed by our forebears, and that my readers from elsewhere would be encouraged to reconsider what they may have thought about the city from afar.

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day, 70 Years Later


[This is an updated re-posting of my entry from 6 June 2012.]


Omaha Beach, Normandy, 6 June 1944
(image@wearecentralpa.com)


Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied amphibious landing of 83,115 men of the British Second Army and some 73,000 men of the American First Army on Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, and Omaha Beaches in Normandy, whose success proved to be the decisive blow leveled against the forces of Hitler's Third Reich, guaranteeing Germany's ultimate surrender eleven months later.

Operation Neptune, the greatest amphibious assault in the annals of military history, was a tactical tour de force, whose very precarious launching in the face of the always-dicey weather of the English Channel tempts the Calvinist in me to see the directly causal hand of the all-sovereign God.  Its success forever guaranteed the reputations of its Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhouwer, and commander of ground forces, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery (of El Alamein fame).  More importantly, the success of this operation, as Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill rightly noted, was crucial to the preservation of Western (he said "Christian," but I digress) civilization against the depredations of a barbarism worthy of the Huns and Visigoths of old.

Norman Forster
(family photograph)
My own connection with D-Day comes through my late, lamented Uncle Norman Forster, who served in the Royal Navy in one of the more than 1200 war ships that supported the landings that day.  It is one of the things for which I am most proud of him.  For, despite my general commitment to nonresistance and almost universal anti-war sentiment, I truly believe Churchill was right in this case.  Indeed, it is World War II, more than anything else, that has instilled in me the belief that so-called "just wars" do indeed exist, no matter how rare and subject to unjust prosecution (case[s] in point: the bombings of Dresden and [most likely] Hiroshima).  The sheer scope of Hitler's power and the worldwide threat he posed render silly — and offensive — putative comparisons with such petty tyrants as Saddam Hussein and terrorist masterminds like Osama bin Laden (of course, the politicians who invoke such comparisons know this as well; if not, they are intellectually unqualified for office).

As the ranks of those who are old enough to remember that day, let alone those who actually served, decrease by the day, the tendency will be to let the memory recede into the mists of time and dry, dusty history textbooks.  But we must never forget, both in honor of the thousands who served and the scores who paid the ultimate price with their lives.  And let us always remember that war, if fought justly, must never be engaged in the service of imperial ambitions or economic hegemony, but as the only viable defense of fundamental human rights and national sovereignty, in the hope of ultimately reintegrating the aggressive parties into the world community, not least for the benefits of their own citizens.


Scottish Piper Bill Millin storming Sword Beach with
the Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade,
British Second Army, 6 June 1944
(image@kentmitchell'sramblings.blogspot.com)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Should We Be "Surprised by N. T. Wright"?


Wright near his home on the Fife coast
(image@christianitytoday.com)

This week I finally got around to reading Christianity Today's April 2014 feature on N. T. ("Call me Tom") Wright who, depending on one's perspective—or church affiliation—is either the most famous or infamous New Testament scholar plying his trade in the context of a broad, international evangelicalism. Those of us who have spent the past three decades studying the New Testament academically might find it hard to imagine that there are still some thinking Christians in the English-speaking world unacquainted with Wright, whose voluminous output ranges from the massive, highly technical historical-theological series Christian Origins and the Question of God—four volumes of which, including his 2013 volume, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which checks in at more than 1500 pages, have already been published—to his rudimentary, popular expositions of each New Testament book in his New Testament for Everyone series. Wright is the rare academic (he has taught at Cambridge, McGill, Oxford, and [now] at St. Andrews) who has purposefully wed his erudition to an active, professional concern for the church (he has served the Church of England as Canon theologian at Westminster Abbey and Bishop of Durham) and an exceptional common touch. Nary a speck of dust can be found anywhere in the hall at a Wright lecture. And, as I have often told my students, if for nothing else read his books for their prose. Along the way your thinking, and quite possibly your life itself, will be changed in the process.

My own introduction to Wright's work came in 1987 when an article he had published in the 1986 volume of the Journal for Theological Studies on the noun harpagmos in Philippians 2:6 was recommended to me by my late, lamented teacher Harold Hoehner. I thought then, as I think today, that this was among the best scholarly articles on the New Testament I had ever read, even if one may quibble with him a bit at points. In the space of a mere 32 pages, he waded through the morass of competing, contradictory interpretations of that term, pointed out that the commonly-held "res rapta" view of the term really should have been labeled "res retinenda," and came to a conclusion that, after all was said and done, appeared to flow obviously from the grammar and context of the passage. This, I realized then as a Ph.D. student in New Testament, was no easy accomplishment. Later, when working on my dissertation on Paul's theology of justification in Galatians, I encountered his newly published The Climax of the Covenant, a revised compilation of articles he had written on Christ and the Law in Paul's theology. At first I was utterly flummoxed. Here was a man who, it seemed, was as incapable of espousing a well-worn, traditional interpretation as he was of writing a dull sentence. Yet all of his "novel" interpretations—not all coming from left field, as it turns out—were proposed in the interests of a genuine "biblical" theology which elegantly tied together all the apparent loose ends of the text in a coherent and convincing narrative framework. After a few more months of extensive study, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, I finally gave up trying to kick against the goads and concluded that his analysis of the text, in particular that of the apostle's seemingly convoluted scriptural arguments in Galatians 3, pointed a clear way forward in understanding the text both historically and theologically. Since that time, I have made it my business to devour each of his scholarly volumes, and have found each one of them stimulating and, at times, inspiring, even though, as with all writers, I find myself disagreeing at times in substantive ways.

In the intervening decades, of course, Professor Wright's fame and influence have burgeoned even as controversies over his views have multiplied in certain circles, most intensely in the American Reformed traditions. This, of course, is why Jason Byassee wrote his piece for CT. For the most part, Byassee's piece is well balanced, fair, and informative. In particular, he situates Wright well in his ecclesial and scholarly contexts in a way many of his conservative American Reformed and evangelical detractors simply fail to appreciate. In particular, Byassee emphasizes Wright's standing in the academic world, even quoting Richard Hays to the effect that Wright is now "bigger than Bultmann." Well, when Hays speaks, I listen. And I certainly believe Wright's work is far more valuable for the church than was the influential Marburger. Moreover, his scholarly output is both more rigorous and voluminous. Nevertheless, for better or (more often) worse, Bultmann indisputably set the agenda for academic New Testament studies for a good fifty years, even after his controlling Heideggerian existentialism became largely passe. As good and important as Wright's work is, I can say confidently that such overwhelming international influence is unlikely to emanate from the east coast of Scotland, particularly in American university departments of religion, not to mention their counterparts in Germany. And Wright's natural audience, British and American evangelicals, are (especially in this country) temperamentally more disposed to follow more "conservative" scholars like Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, whose articulation and defense of more traditional positions appears, at first glance, better to epitomize the "faithfulness" evangelicalism treasures.

Things, however, are not always as they appear at first glance. Nor is "faithfulness" always to be identified, in a knee-jerk sort of way, with tried-and-true "traditional" or even "confessional" readings of the text. After all, it was (and is in some circles even today) one of the arguments used against Luther that he had the arrogant audacity to overthrow more than a millennium of church tradition and teaching based simply on his own interpretation of the biblical text. Wright, thankfully, has consciously seen it as his duty to follow in the Reformers' footsteps in terms of their method, even if by honoring them in such a fashion he overthrows some of their teachings, most controversially the so-called imputation of Christ's "active" obedience/righteousness, that have attained the somewhat dubious status of being Reformed Shibboleths. Indeed, it is Wright's advocacy of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul"—itself a somewhat outdated label for a spectrum of views, precipitated by E. P. Sanders's compelling re-reading of Second Temple Judaism, that situate Paul's doctrine of justification in the eschatological inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God rather than, more generally, in the quest of the individual to secure his or her standing at the final judgment—that has made him the bête noire of contemporary New Testament scholars in many circles.

To be sure, Wright has written plenty in criticism of "traditional" Protestant teaching on justification. Indeed, his book-length 2009 response to John Piper, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, led to a famous back-and-forth with Tom Schreiner at the 2010 ETS Annual Conference, which apparently generated more heat than light, at least if the responses to Wright's presentations there are any indication. The ever-gracious Schreiner, for his part, seemed genuinely to understand the vast areas of agreement that the two had, focusing his criticism on Wright's contention for an ecclesiological dimension to justification—as opposed to Schreiner's contention that justification is entirely soteriological and individualistic—and his belief that future justification at the final judgment will be on the basis of the entirety of the life a believer lived (Schreiner and his Reformed followers preferred to speak of future judgment in accordance with works, though one always is suspect when theologians expect more precision in the use of prepositions than St. Paul himself used in Philippians 3:9, when he speaks of having a righteousness from God on the basis of (epi) faith, as opposed to Christ's active and passive obedience; the issue, as both Wright and Schreiner agreed, concerned that which would be adjudicated at the assize, both likewise agreeing that the works approved by God were not "meritorious" in the least, but reflective of the Spirit's sovereign work in the believer's life). In the aftermath, positions were hardened, and the false disjunction between "old" and "new" perspectives on Paul remains ingrained on the ecclesial landscape and a cause for professional vicissitudes for those scholars "amenable" to at least some of the New Perspective's concerns.

It is here that Byassee could have provided a salutary service by clearly articulating "what Wright really says." Alas, such was not to be. Instead, he perpetuates some of the more egregious misconceptions about Wright's views that appear immune to dislodgement.  The clearest example of this in Byassee's article is the following quotation:
It is important to stop and note how dramatically Wright has reworked things here. It means, in part, that the evangelist at summer camp who asked me, "If you died tonight, why should God let you into heaven?" was wrong when he provided the answer, "For no reason other than that Jesus died in my place."
What Wright really says is as follows:
"Nothing in my hand I bring," sings the poet, "simply to thy cross I cling." Of course: we look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ and him crucified, to the God whose gracious love and mercy sent him to die for us. But the sigh of relief which is the characteristic Christian reaction to learning about justification by faith ("You mean I don't have to do anything? God loves me and accepts me as I am, just because Jesus died for me?") ought to give birth at once to a deeper realization down exactly the same line: "You mean it isn't all about me after all? I'm not the center of the universe? It's all about God and his purposes?" The problem is that, throughout the history of the Western church, even where the first point has been enthusiastically embracedsometimes particularly where that has happenedthe second has been ignored. And with that sometimes willful ignorance there has crept back into theology, even into good, no-nonsense, copper-bottomed Reformation theology, the snake's whisper that it actually is all about us, that "my relationship with God" and "my salvation" is the still point at the center of the universe (Justification, 24-25).
Indeed, over the past few years Wright has been at pains to declare clearly that the so-called "old" and "new" perspectives on Paul are not mutually exclusive, and that the new perspective, born of a more nuanced understanding of Second Temple Judaism and early Christian history, provides a better understanding of the historical context in which Paul's teaching on justification must be located, and as a result shines a needed light on dimensions of the apostle's teaching which hitherto had been either ignored or under-emphasized in the Reformation traditions. This has likewise been the mantra of Jimmy Dunn, and it is simply inexcusable after all this time for people to continue to act as if such men "deny" the Protestant doctrine of justification. I will not hold my breath, however. Apparently one must chalk such reactions up to the controlling influence of presuppositions: worldviews determine even how one hears what others are saying, especially when matters close to the heart of the worldview are seen as being challenged.

This one quibble aside, Byassee does a good job of commending Wright to the Christian reading public. I will do the same thing. Of particular importance is Wright's new Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Much has been made of its unprecedented bulk. But its size merely reflects its importance and unique focus. Whereas the two previous candidates for "best Pauline theology" (those by Ridderbos and Dunn) each approach the text theologically and utilize loci derived from previous theological writings, Wright is different, striving to portray the apostle's narrative worldview and situate him historically as a Jewish theologian working as apostle to the Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. What results is a massive re-reading of Paul as one who has not abandoned his Jewish beliefs but transformed them as a result of his belief that God had definitively and eschatologically manifested his covenant faithfulness in the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. What results is a theology in which he reaffirms the three major foci of Jewish theology (monotheism, election, eschatology) and reworks them around his Christian convictions and experience of Christ and the Spirit. What results from Wright's pen is not always entirely convincing, though it more often than not is. And, much to the pleasure of anyone investing the time to read 1500+ pages, it is never dull, and occasionally is downright inspiring. May this work have a long shelf life.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Some Reflections on a Memoir by Frank Schaeffer


This week I came across an excerpt from Frank Schaeffer's forthcoming book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Create Beauty, Give Love and Find Peace. This particular snippet concerned an experience he had in church with his granddaughter while waiting to partake of the Eucharistic elements. Schaeffer writes:

I was shuffling forward in the communion line, with my five year old granddaughter Lucy in my arms. I was lost in gloomy thoughts, brooding on my past and on my doubts, failures, and my past meanness to my wife Genie (we’ve been married 44 years) when I was young, stupid and so woefully controlling as a teen “father.” I was feeling that going to church was a waste of time. I was feeling unworthy in every sense of the word and sinking into a gray depression.
Lucy is always in and out of my arms in church as she has been since she was born. So I’d actually forgotten I was holding her. (These days I hardly know how to be in church without a grandchild riding on my hip.) With my head bowed and my eyes closed I shuffled forward to the chalice to receive the “body and blood” through a ritual I don’t comprehend and that seemed entirely pointless that day. I was adrift in my melancholy. Then I felt the touch of Lucy’s hand on my face and—startled—opened my eyes.
It took me a moment to remember where I was. Lucy was gazing into my face. She wasn’t smiling, just gazing at me in that straightforward way that only a child achieves: with serious concentration and offering me a transparent “look” that had no agenda. She wanted nothing from me. All I saw in Lucy’s expression was unconditional trust. All I saw was a child who knows me now and who never expects anything but kindness from me. She did not know of my past sins, failings and bitter self-accusing regrets. Lucy was not judging me. I was accusing myself while she was just gently touching her grandfather’s cheek, checking to see why my eyes were closed.
Lucy inclined her head and kissed me. This thought crashed into my brain: I am being seen as I’d like to be perceived, not as I see myself. I have seen the face of God.
Our best hope is not found in correct theology, but in the love we express through action rather than words. Our best hope is that love predates creation and thus that the Creator sees us as ever young. Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is.
I am not one of those Evangelicals who despises Schaeffer and has written him off as an Esau for his (at least partially justified) criticisms of Evangelical Christianity—in particular, its often unreflective and corrupting forays into right-wing politics—and, one suspects to be his greater "sin," his realistic, warts-and-all portrayal of his great father, Francis Schaeffer, in his fascinating memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. To be sure, I remain frustrated by Schaeffer's impatience with, and in many respects his rejection of, the theology that undergirds traditional Protestant belief. Nevertheless, much of what he writes resonates deeply within me. In part that is due to the shared experience of having been raised by a father of some repute in American fundamentalist/Evangelical circles. As is also the case with another of similar experiences, Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer, such experiences can breed cynicism and existential confusion because of first-hand experiences of the movement's multifarious worldly failings, often hidden from the faithful's view, to which we were privy.

They also can breed sadness, a trait I find running as a constant undercurrent in Schaeffer's writing. To be sure, much of this, in his case, can be attributed to his regret for having played a leading role in the early days of the politicization of the religious right. Yet one suspects his melancholy runs deeper than that. Indeed, in the excerpt cited above, Schaeffer explicitly recalls his regretful ruminations—at the Eucharist!—of his mistreatment of his wife forty years in the past. As one whose tendencies include the combination of a long memory and melancholy due to brooding introspection, Schaeffer's narrative hit me square in the face. The theologian in me knows that salvation is by grace alone—sola gratia; how could it be otherwise?—and that perfectionism is a baseless chimera. Nevertheless, empiricism constantly provides evidence that I am not what I should be, and that indeed I am not much better than I was thirty years ago: bad husband, bad father, bad Christian. Martin Luther's famous statement that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator—at the same time righteous and a sinner—has long been a favorite theological catch phrase. But, truth be told, it still remains existentially unsatisfying for a Calvinist who all too often fails miserably to, as St. Paul puts it, "mortify" or "put to death" the "deeds of the body," that is, the misdeeds committed in the sin-wracked mortal body that characterizes the present evil age (Rom 8:13).

It is at this point that Schaeffer's intensely personal memoir provides the needed corrective, a corrective more effective because it comes from the pen of an artist, not a theologian. What shook Schaeffer out of his melancholy, depressive torpor was his observation of the way his granddaughter simply gazed at his face. As he puts it, "I am being seen as I’d like to be perceived, not as I see myself. I have seen the face of God." It is this same feeling I often get after a hard shift at the factory, when I have not lived up to my profession, and I am greeted at the door by my beloved Westie, Louisa, ears back, tail-a-wagging, and howling in glee just to see me. It is the face of delight, the face of love. Of course, Schaeffer's granddaughter knows little if anything about the sins of her grandfather's past, just as my dog is incapable of such knowledge about mine. But that's the point, isn't it? The Christian gospel teaches that the all-knowing God, despite the fact that we are unworthy sinners in defiance against him, demonstrated his love for us in the very act of Christ's dying for us (Rom 5:8). The implicit Christology in such a statement is hard to miss for those well-versed in the Apostle's thought. And that is why Good Friday—the significance of which is so beautifully pictured in the Eucharist, the "ritual" Schaeffer for some reason can't comprehend—remains so important in the Christian calendar: The passion of Jesus the Messiah is, in reality, the self-substitution of God himself in judgment for the sins his people have committed, procuring forgiveness for their sins and thus securing the ultimate "glorification" of all those on whom he set his love before time even existed (cf. Rom 8:28-30). As a result, in one of Paul's greatest and most comforting claims, "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Messiah Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:39).

For Paul, Jesus the Messiah acted as what I like to refer to as the "inclusive representative" of his people. Indeed, not only were his people chosen "in Christ" before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), they were crucified, buried, and raised with him as well (Rom 6:3-6; Gal 2:19-20; Col 2:12-13, 20; 3:1, 3). The apostle can even say that believers in Christ are now seated with him in "the heavenlies" (Eph 2:6), that their lives are now "hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:2), and that they will appear with him in glory when he is made "manifest" at his return (Col 3:3). This status of being "in Christ" is not redolent of a vague "mysticism" (as Albert Schweitzer misinterpreted it), but, as the late New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos wrote, is to be understood objectively as "an abiding reality determinative for the whole of the Christian life (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 59). Thus, when Christ hung from Calvary's tree, it was not only the case that he died instead of me and for my benefit (representing the Greek prepositions anti and hyper); I was deemed to have died as well. As the Apostle wrote elsewhere, "One died for all; therefore all died" (2 Cor 5:14). As a result, having been crucified with Christ, the benefits of that death accrue to me both forensically (the forgiveness of sins due to his death as a sin offering [Rom 8:3]) and existentially (sin's power over my life has been decisively abolished [Rom 6:6]). Union with Christ in his resurrection likewise grounds the definitive change of the believer's status ("justified" as a result of sharing in the Messiah's "vindication" [1 Tim 3:16]) and lifestyle (Rom 6:4). And this is the basic fact to which this discussion leads: When God metaphorically looks at my face, he doesn't see Jim McGahey, the loud-mouthed, temper-prone sinner. He sees the face of one who is inseparably united to his only Son, Jesus my Lord. And the glory and grace of this is that he knows full well every sin of commission or omission, in thought, word, or deed, that I have ever done and will do until he graciously takes me home.

This recognition leads to the second observation, only briefly hinted at by Schaeffer at the end of his story. For twenty centuries Christians have wrestled with the issue of the "divinity" of Jesus or, better, how to place the confession of Jesus' Lordship within the non-negotiable, fundamental Jewish confession that the god of Israel, YHWH, is the sovereign Creator, the only true God. At times, such as in the present day because of Bart Ehrman's seriously flawed How Jesus Became God, this discussion has come to the fore in the cultural Zeitgeist. But one serious weakness historically has been that people approach the issue as if the term that needed no definition was the titular term "God." In such cases, all too often alien notions, some derived from Greek philosophy rather than the Bible, have hindered genuine understanding of who God is and what he is like, in both ontological and relational terms. Indeed, if philosophical speculation about the unitary nature or simplicity of God's inner being were essential to monotheism, then trying to understand how Jesus fits in such a scheme would be difficult if not futile (thankfully, it is not, as Richard Bauckham has forcefully demonstrated). Likewise, the so-called "New Atheists" (for example, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins) have made much of the apparent moral atrocities committed and commanded by YHWH in the Old Testament in order to heap scorn on Christians who would take such texts seriously.

It is not the time to engage such writers (for a popular level response, see, e.g., Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster?). Yet Schaeffer points to the best way out of the traffic, when he writes, "Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is." Is this not precisely what St. John said in what may surely be considered the capstone of New Testament Christology?
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18, NET Bible)
The relevant text is verse 18. The essential invisibility of God as a spiritual Being is a biblical commonplace (cf. 1 Tim 1:17). When he is "seen," it is in a variety of "forms" (e.g., Gen 32:24-30; Exod 24:9-11; 33:9-11, 18-23; Isa 6:1-6). Here, however, John not only calls the incarnate Word, Jesus Messiah, "the only God," he says that this "only God," who resides at the Father's side/in his bosom, has "made him [the first referent of "God" in the verse, i.e., the 'Father'] known." The verb here is exēgeomai, which carries the sense of "expounding" or providing a definitive exposition of something. At the risk of committing the fallacy of reverse etymology, one could say that the incarnate Jesus was the definitive exegesis of the invisible God (cf. also Col 1:15). In other words, if you want to understand who God is and what he is really like, look at Jesus.

What this means is that the event on Good Friday, (probably) 3 April 33 CE, was not merely a gross travesty of justice. It emphatically was not the grotesque caricature of a bully God sending his only Son to death in the ultimate case of child abuse. Even less was it the case of a loving Jesus trying to appease the insatiable wrath of his Father by dying as a sacrifice for human sin. No, the one hanging there was, in a very real sense, the one whom Luther provocatively called "the crucified God." It was God himself, out of incomprehensible love, taking upon himself the weight of human alienation, shame and, yes, sin in order to condemn sin in human flesh. And it is because of my union with the crucified and resurrected Lord that I can be assured of an ultimate future in his presence on the new earth. That, my friends, is very good news indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria!