Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Richard Beck speak at The Borough Common in London, as part of his UK speaking tour. Richard’s wife, Jana, also contributed actively to the discussion.
Richard began by describing how it became apparent early in his marriage that he questioned his faith far more than Jana did hers. One thing that helped them both work through this was being introduced to the terminology “Summer Christians” and “Winter Christians”: Richard being in the “Winter” camp, Jana in the “Summer” – though they agreed that 24 years of marriage has moved them closer together, with Richard being more “autumnal” and Jana describing herself as “early spring”.
The focus of Richard’s talk was therefore on what it means to be a “Winter Christian”, and above all how a Winter Christian can learn to have hope as well as questions. He described how Job 13:15 has been a key text: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”
This post sets out an expanded version of notes I made after the talk, with my own thoughts in response. I’ve formatted the notes as quotations (and references to “I” are to Richard), but they are notes made from memory after the event and not verbatim quotations. Apologies to Richard in advance for any misquotations or misrepresentations of what he said.
Psalms, prophecy, poetry
Walter Brueggemann distinguishes between psalms of orientation and psalms of disorientation. An example of a psalm of orientation of Psalm 1: the righteous get their reward, the unrighteous get their comeuppance; it’s a “Hollywood ending”.
An example of a psalm of disorientation is Psalm 13: one of many psalms that say to God, in essence, “why aren’t things working out like Psalm 1 said they would?” One of the things that gives me faith in the Bible is this way in which it contradicts itself; it squabbles with itself.
But most psalms of lament end with doxology: why? Again, Brueggemann provides a framework for this, when he observes the different kinds of “poetry” that are to be found in the prophets.
First, there is the poetry of indictment. Amos is a good example of this: the prophet confronts Israel with its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant, and warns of disaster to come if it doesn’t change its ways, particularly in its treatment of widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. A lot of Christians (particularly those who would identify as “progressive” or “liberal”) find that this type of prophetic “poetry” resonates with them strongly.
Second, there is the poetry of lament, classically to be found in the book of Lamentations. This is where the disaster warned of by earlier prophets has come to pass: Jerusalem is destroyed, the people are exiled. Now the prophet sets aside the poetry of indictment, and sits beside the people to weep with them. Again, this is a poetry with which I can identify.
But then there is the poetry of hope. After all the unheeded warnings, after the disasters and lamentation, we come to Isaiah 40, “the first chapter of the New Testament”, where God tells the prophet to “comfort, comfort my people.” This poetry of hope is often the hardest for “Winter Christians” to express for themselves.
What Winter Christians need is a balanced diet of indictment, lament and hope.
Some thoughts on this: first, I don’t think I’d go so far as to describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, though I’m closer to that than to “Summer” (talking to Richard afterwards, I said that my two favourite times of the church year are Advent and Maundy Thursday). I’m certainly a “person of two questions” (see below).
One of the main benefits of praying the Daily Office is that, by praying all the psalms on a regular basis, we get that balanced diet of indictment, lament, hope; orientation and disorientation.
One thing that struck me thinking about Richard’s talk afterwards is the importance of realising that the psalms of orientation are as much the Word of God to us as the psalms of disorientation. It’s easy to slip into thinking that the latter are the real psalms, the crunchy psalms, unlike those pollyanna-ish efforts like Psalm 1. But we need to pray the psalms of orientation also (such as Psalm 107 this morning), as an expression of our hope that, ultimately, all wrongs will be righted by God’s justice and love.
How many questions?
I mentioned above Richard’s distinction between “people of one question” and “people of two questions”. Here’s how he described it earlier in his talk (again, heavily paraphrased from memory):
One difference between Summer Christians and Winter Christians is the difference between being a person of “one question” and a person of “two questions”. Someone may ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” and be given an answer such as: “Because of free will.”
A person of “one question” will accept that answer and move on. However, a person of “two questions” is likely to follow up with: “Well, why did God create us with free will if he knew what the result would be?”, and so on. The moment you ask that second question, your path is determined: there will be a third question, and a fourth question, and your faith walk is always going to be one of questioning.
We shouldn’t fetishise being “questioning” people, though. That can easily degenerate into cynicism. One highly concrete way in which Richard has learned hope (and Jana confirmed these are experiences that have brought the two of them closer together, spiritually) is by spending time with marginalised people: through their work with homeless and poor people, and Richard’s ministry in leading Bible studies in a maximum security prison in Texas.
Lamentation and privilege
Richard described how he had led a very well-received Bible study for a group of university professors on the psalms of lament. This privileged audience readily agreed that the church needed to allow more space for lamentation.
When I was preparing for my first prison Bible study, I reached for this as it had been the most successful study I’d led, and surely prisoners (many of whom had been in prison for decades, and were destined to die there) would understand better than most the gritty reality of life and the need to acknowledge this in our faith.
However, as I started to talk about the psalms of lament, the prisoners cut me off. For them, their faith was the one thing that gave hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. To start deconstructing that was to strike at the root of their very being.
This made me realise the privilege I have. For me, faith is optional. If I stopped believing today, it wouldn’t make much difference to my life tomorrow. But for many marginalised people, faith isn’t optional: it’s the only thing they have that makes sense in their lives. As a result, they are people of hope, not cynical questioners; and I’ve changed, become more hopeful, as a result of this.
That point about how, for those of us with privileged and affluent lifestyles, “faith is optional”, really hit home for me.
Making God’s love credible
Richard went on to describe how his work with prisoners has also given him a greater awareness of how important the link is between the love we show one another and our ability to experience God’s love:
One prisoner, Steve, asked how the words “God loves you” could have meaning for him when no one had ever said the words “I love you” to him – not his mother, nor his father, nor any family or friends. He had never heard those words spoken to him. So every week now I stand before him and tell him: “Steve, I love you.” My saying “I love you” makes the love of God credible to Steve.
This then has a parallel in our weekly life as a church:
In the same way, when we gather as Christians and share the bread and wine with one another, saying “here is the body of Christ broken for you,” “here is the blood of Christ shed for you,” that has greater credibility because I know that last week, you were showing that sort of love for me; you were being broken for me. That helps me understand what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for me.
The danger of labels
Terminology such as “Winter Christian” does carry dangers, though, as Richard observed during the Q&A following his talk:
We have to be careful we don’t start to apply labels in a way that says, “I’m the best type of Christian.” We often build up our self-esteem in violent ways – psychically violent, that is. We mark the other person down, and mark ourselves up. One of the things that makes Jesus so attractive is his complete refusal to do that.
The biggest problem in the Corinthian church wasn’t diversity or division, but shame. We can see this from 1 Corinthians 12:
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” – this is the language of shaming, of looking down on others as inferior. But God inverts our worldly hierarchies: “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable […] God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member…”
Re-ordering our affections
Richard concluded his talk by quoting Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, particularly its concluding lines:
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Indictment and lamentation and questioning on their own can lead to cynicism. “Winter Christians” also need to learn to “practise resurrection”, to speak words of hope to others (which can increase both their and your hopefulness). This is partly a matter of reordering our affections:
In capitalist society, we are bombarded with advertising messages designed to secure our affections, to pull them away from the things of God. Right now, someone is being paid to make me want what they’re selling, to make me click on that button. So I do various things to keep my affections centred on God: I pray the hours; I wear a prayer rope on my right arm; I have a tattoo on my left arm; I have a St Francis medallion. My office is nicknamed “the chapel”.
Martin Thornton described the basic spiritual “Rule” of Christianity as consisting of “Mass – Office – personal devotion”, with the most important element of “personal devotion” being what Thornton calls “habitual recollection” rather than formal spiritual exercises. That type of recollective, habitual self-reminding of God’s love and hope is one way to “practise resurrection” in our daily lives.
What did I take away from this? Even though I wouldn’t (quite) describe myself as a “Winter Christian”, a lot of what Richard said resonated with me. To put it into the “Mass – Office – devotion” framework I mentioned in the previous paragraph:
- Office: praying the Daily Office helps to maintain that balanced diet of orientation and disorientation, of indictment, lament and hope. It can also play a powerful role in keeping our affections centred on God.
- Mass: we need to see the connection between the Eucharist and the concrete reality of our life together as a church: showing love for one another, refusing to bring into the church the world’s categories of who is “superior” and who is “inferior”.
- Devotion: at its heart, this is about reordering our affections – particularly in the direction of hope and resurrection – through the habitual recollection of God in our daily lives.