Friday, September 09, 2005

Vanhoozer on Doctrine, Life, and the Mind of Christ

Last week I mentioned Kevin Vanhoozer's new book, The Drama of Doctrine, in which he proposes a model of theology that relies heavily on the dramatic arts. The English word "drama" is derived from the Greek word drao which means "I do." A drama is a series of doings both dialogical and physical. It is also characterized by entrances and exits by the cast members. "Dramatic" is an appropriate description for redemptive history because in it God interacts with humanity through speech and actions (as well as through speech-acts, the foremost of which is Jesus Christ). The Bible is not only a record of God's historic acts, however. It is a player in the ongoing drama:

The basic insight is that the Bible is not simply a deposit of revelation but one of God's "mighty acts" -- a mighty communicative act, to be exact. Scripture has a role -- a speaking, acting part -- in the drama of redemption precisely as divine discourse. Scripture not only conveys the content of the gospel but is itself caught up in the economy of the gospel, as the means by which God draws others into his communicative action. Jesus is God's definitive Word, to be sure, but Scripture projects his voice and extends his action (48, here and in following quotations, emphasis is in the original).
Scripture, according to this understanding of redemptive history is far more than source material for building theological systems. It is a script intended to direct the life of the church. If theology is to be consonant with the dramatic nature of its subject matter, it cannot be satisfied with merely repeating doctrinal formulations from the past or with mental apprehension of biblical truth:
The script exists for the sake of speeding the drama of redemption. The ultimate purpose of the divine canonical discourse is to form a new people, the vanguard of a new creation. This is the "perlocutionary" [According to speech-act theory, the perlocution is the effect produced by saying something. This is in distinction from the illocution, the act performed in saying something] purpose of Scripture, its intended effect. Dramas are not devised primarily to convey information but to move us, to persuade us, to delight us, to purge us of unwanted feelings (182).
It's not that intellectual understanding is of no value. As Vanhoozer points out, actors must understand a script in order to render a faithful performance. Understanding, then, is displayed not solely by the ability to repeat the lines, but to live our parts. This requires more than rote recitation of lines and mechanical acting which amount to hypocrisy. Vanhoozer believes that the famed acting teacher and director Constantin Stanislavski has something to teach us. According to Stanislavski's system for learning how to act (referred to as "the Method"), an actor must become his or her role. This encompasses the use of the intellect, yes, but other cognitive factors as well. "What doctrine [understood as theo-dramatic direction] communicates --its 'import'--involves the whole person: cognition, affection, and volition alike" (100).

Many of us bemoan the anti-intellectualism that characterizes much of contemporary evangelicalism. (One of my own pet peeves is that it seems that whenever we sing "Take My Life and Let it Be," we skip the verse that reads "Take my intellect and use, every pow'r as Thou shalt choose.") I think there is due cause for lament. However, I know I have to guard myself against overcompensating such that I neglect the other dimensions of my humanity with which I am to love, enjoy, and serve the living God. Talk about developing a "Christian mind" can easily lead us to think in exclusively intellectual terms. That's why I especially appreciated the following description of theology's ultimate goal according to Vanhoozer's conception:
Canonical-linguistic theology is not simply a hermeneutic, a way of dealing with the text, but a way of life: a scripted and spirited performance, a way of wisdom generated and sustained by word and Spirit. As such, it is as concerned with training performers as it is with understanding the script. Its intent is not merely to inform but to transform minds. Canonical-linguistic theology represents a kind of cognitive therapy that aims to replace distorted patterns of thinking with patterns that correspond to canonical practices, to theo-dramatic reality, and, ultimately, to the mind of Christ

The "mind of Christ" refers not merely to Jesus' intellectual quotient or his stock of knowledge but to his habitus: the distinctive pattern of all his intentional acts--desires, hopes beliefs, volitions, emotions, as well as thoughts. The mind of Christ refers, in a word, to the characteristic pattern of Jesus' judgments--to the way that Jesus processes information and to the product of that process: the embodied wisdom of God. The mind of Christ is the set of moral, intellectual, and spiritual habits or virtues that serve as the mainspring for all the particular things that Jesus does and says (255-256).
In the introduction, Vanhoozer writes, "The hoped-for outcome of canonical-linguistic theology is nothing less than the missing link between right belief (orthodoxy) and wise practice (orthopraxis): right judgment (orthokrisis)" (30).

I am weary of doctrinal debate and discussion that seems to hang in the air, detached from life. That's why I find Vanhoozer's vision so refreshing. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems to me that many of us who are rightly concerned about doctrinal precision are more comfortable in the realm of abstraction and in need of connecting the doctrines we defend and love to the lives we live. Truth, after all, is not only to be known, but practiced.


Tyler Simons said...

Nice post. You might be interested in a book that I have (but have yet to read) called Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells. His theology might be a little less evangelical than you'd like, but he's discussing similar themes. He thinks of scripture as less of a script and more of a set of guidelines for improvisation, like dance moves that one uses as the moment suggests, if you will.

Come check out the Watchpost if you get the chance.

smerickson said...

Thanks Keith for posting on this excellent book. I'm a little ways into part 2 right now. What a refreshing read from a great theologian. I hope many others will be able to read this book and benefit from the wisdom contained therein.