Reading Notes (1/29/10) Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 29 January 2010 09:02

Over the past several decades, there has been a burst of revisionist scholarship on fourth-century Christianity, and especially on the Arian crisis.  Rowan Williams and R. P. C. Hanson tried to get at the “historical Arius” behind the monster constructed by Athanasius, and Lewis Ayres more recently has placed Arius and Athanasius within a complex and varied fourth-century theological world.

One of the best and most comprehensive of the new works is John Behr’s Formation of Christian Theology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004).  The second volume covers the “Nicene Faith,” examining the theological background of the Arian debate, the development of the controversy, and the theologies of Athanasius and the Cappadocians.  Behr has drawn the best insights from current scholarship, but much of his book is a lucid and detailed exposition of the main treatises of the most important theologians of the period.

One of Behr’s most arresting claims is that the Eastern Fathers were not really concerned with developing “Trinitarian theology,” if by that is meant reflection on the internal mysteries of the immanent Trinity.  Rather, the Fathers were concerned to expound the gospel – how is the crucified Jesus related to the one God – and their fundamental grammar for doing so was the biblical narrative of the Creator God’s promise to Abraham and Israel, realized finally in the advent of the Son and the coming of the Spirit.

Failure to recognize that this was the patristic obsession has led to all manner of mischief – a perceived abyss between the apostles and the fathers, institutionalized in the division of “New Testament Studies” from “Patristics,” the myth that Trinitarian theology represents a “Hellenization” of the gospel, indulgence of abstract speculations of divine procession and notions and relations.


Jay McInerney burst onto the American literary scene in 1984 with Bright Lights, Big City, whose unnamed protagonist, a magazine fact-checker and party guy, is transparently a stand-in for McInerney.  Set in the roarin’ 1980s, the novel depicted New York’s yuppie cocaine culture and was innovatively written in second person; as in, “You pour out a line.  You take a big snort.”  Well, no, I don’t.  When he wasn’t detailing the unpleasantries of the drug subculture, McInerney’s novel was telling a nostalgic and occasionally touching tale of jilted love and pathetic obsession.

A recent collection of short stories, How It Ended (Knopf, 2009), shows that McInerney’s skill is all still there – the easy style, the humor, the nostalgia, the keen eye for status markers that leads critics to compare him with Tom Wolfe.  But it’s still Jay, the brattiest of the brat pack, still writing, even in the most recent entries in this collection, about cokeheads (now middle-aged and in rehab), sex, decadence, failed dreams, disappointed love, and then sex and coke again.

McInerney (b. 1955) is slouching toward sixty now, and you might think the guy would have begun to grow up.  He hasn’t.


Since the publication of The Gift by Marcel Mauss, the topic has become an interdisciplinary obsession.  Medieval and early modern historians write about gift-exchange, anthropologists about potlatches and competitive generosity, theologians and philosophers about the gift of being, about whether gifts are possible, and about the harmonious gift-exchange that is the life of the Triune God.

Margaret Visser, author of Rituals of Dinner and Geometry of Love, noticed that something was missing.  For all the interest in the complications and etiquette of giving, few writers have directed attention to the other side of exchange: gratitude.  In The Gift of Thanks (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Visser sets out to fill that gap.  As with all her work, she makes a resounding success of it.

All the main players are here.  She spends time with Seneca’s seminal but forgotten treatise On the Benefits, discusses Thomas Aquinas’s idea that gratitude is a matter of justice, examines Shakespeare’s plays for their insights into gratitude, or, more commonly, ingratitude, summarizes Mauss.  To her treatments of the philosophical and literary explorations of gratitude, she adds her characteristic brand of commonsense everyday anthropology, exploring verbal thanks, as well as rituals and gestures of gratitude, across an impressive range of cultures.


I came to Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How the Atonement Brings Shalom (IVP, 2009) with high hopes.  It certainly has its virtues.  It is very thoroughly researched, careful and judicious in its conclusions, clearly written.  Overall, though, I was disappointed.  With Girard’s work on sacrifice and sacred violence on the table, and with Jacob Milgrom and a host of others expounding Leviticus with unprecedented depth and subtlety, and with the late Mary Douglas and other anthropologists giving attention to Levitical and other forms of sacrifice, it seems the right time to ask Anselm’s question, Why the God Man? afresh.  Cole’s book is solid, but it doesn’t even ask, much less answer, the really interesting questions about the atonement.

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