This review first appeared at Lifeway’s Pastors Today web blog.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. 280 pp. $30.00.
The extended metaphor: sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t; eventually it breaks down. Yet, when rightly applied, the extended metaphor is an effective tool to refresh stale concepts with an effervescent surge of life.
Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent release, Faith Speaking Understanding, is one such exceedingly successful attempt. This work is designed to stimulate a fresh take on “living to God” as the Puritan, William Ames, one of Vanhoozer’s many dialogue partners, so aptly called the study/practice of theology (Ames, 77-78). In Faith Speaking Understanding, Vanhoozer — research professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School — builds on his previous work, the 2006 Best Theology Book of the year by Christianity Today, The Drama of Doctrine.
Vanhoozer, gears this one, Faith Speaking Understanding, to be more reader friendly from his previous work, The Drama of Doctrine. He says, “Faith Speaking Understanding is, by contrast, written for everyday Christians, serious students of theology, and pastors. It is a root vegetable for the salt of the earth; not a Great Pumpkin but a Lesser Parsnip” (xv).
Faith Speaking Understanding introduces readers to the Theodrama (25), as Vanhoozer calls it. Taking cues from Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others enamored by the theatrical depiction of doctrine — both systematically and canonically studied — the author presents his own construct of a five act drama: creation, election, sending of the Son Jesus, sending of the Spirit and Church, and return of the King (98). This construct is presented in a theatre, on a stage, with lighting, by a company of actors who wish to honor the cosmic playwright. Why does Vanhoozer painstakingly go to such extremes to foster a theatrical model for theology? From Vanhoozer’s perspective: “Theatrical theology serves the project of gospel exhibition” (25).
Each chapter of Faith Speaking Understanding encapsulates a distinct element of this drama and how it is presented. Part one sets the stage by providing overview of the theater of the gospel, explaining the already and not yet element of a kingdom on earth as in heaven, and an interactive apology between stage performers and audience, because ever church member is a performer enacting the role as “little Christs” who are in Christ. Part two furthers the argument by developing the setting, 21st century worldview (chapter 3); the gospel theatre, a triune drama (chapter 4); our parts, “little Christs” (chapter 5); the company, the church (chapter six); the tour, mission (chapter seven); the curtain, future and present suffering (chapter eight).
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Like I said above, extended metaphors are risky business. There is a gamble with them. One is that critique or further exploration causes the rhetorical messenger to adapt his metaphor. For instance, Vanhoozer, in The Drama of Doctrine, calls the Scripture the script (Drama, 114), but in Faith Speaking Understanding he opts to refer to it as the lighting (63). For this reader, it’s difficult to disagree with either: the Scripture seems to both be a script, or at minimum, a stage performers manual, and lighting that illuminates the performance. Having an intellectually honest rhetorical messenger is essential. Like Jesus, one to one correspondence to the parables was never guaranteed or employed and the correspondence often changed from parable to parable and from setting to setting (c.f. Craig Blomberg, The Parables of Jesus, 1.1) . I offer Vanhoozer the same latitude.
Overall, I found Vanhoozer’s discussion to be thoroughly scintillating and satisfying. As a skilled systematician, he demonstrates prowess with both primary and secondary sources. His concise summaries of other 21st century stage setting readers (Alan Wolfe, Christian Smith, David Wells, and Harvey Cox) are informative and engaging (53-56). His interaction with others: Wright, Wells, Bartholomew and Goheen, who attempt to break the biblical narrative into acts of theatrical drama, assist readers to differentiate and extrapolate what exactly Vanhoozer illuminates in his portrayal of a five-act drama (96-98).
When it comes to pastoral leadership, pastors profit much from the whole work, especially chapters 5-7, where Vanhoozer’s doctrine of discipleship conveys that each Christ follower demonstrates in living to God his union with God through Christ. Borrowing from C. S. Lewis’s excellent quote in Mere Christianity, we’re “little Christs” imaging and enacting to a watching world God’s unfolding drama of redemption. This means that when we come together to celebrate catechesis through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word from the pastor theologian — the dramaturge, the worker of drama — we become a company of performers, recapitulating the drama of the kingdom of heaven breaking into earth.
As Vanhoozer presents:
“We now see that the company of the baptized gathers not only to do God’s will together but also, precisely in and through its life together, to witness to God’s kingdom come. Stated differently: the church is not simply to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven but also to exist as God’s will, as the embodiment of God’s will-to-communion” (151-152).
Pastor, simply put, Faith Speaking Understanding is a work that needs to be on your shelf, and, more importantly, worked slowly into the way you read God’s drama of creation to restoration and visibly lead others to enact the theodrama.
Essential Recommended Helpful Pass It By
Faith Speaking Understanding is a superb stage performers manual for every pastor to consult.