Study focus for 2011

Peak Oil / Religion

In the hopes that I’ll actually follow through with some plans I have if I go public with them, I thought I’d post some of the areas I’m planning on focusing my reading and studies on in the coming year. For those of you who hear me preach, consider this fair warning…


I’ve been thinking a great deal about Brian McLaren’s idea that the classic Anselmian version of the Atonement no longer makes sense to the average person these days. The idea isn’t unique to McLaren, but I think for some reason, the way he states the case has made me think more about what the Church’s (specifically the Episcopal Church’s) response might look like.

I think the most common response that I’ve seen lately among preachers and lay leaders is to just dismiss the whole idea of that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin as being no longer meaningful. And so it gets ignored, or worse, ridiculed. I’m not at all comfortable with doing that. First of all there’s a great deal of talk about atonement for sin in the Bible and its a recurrent theme throughout Christian thought. I think the issue isn’t with the idea of atonement per se as much as it is with the idea that there’s only one way (the “Anselmian” or Reformation based) of talking about the Atonement accomplished during the Triduum.

What we call the “classical” understanding isn’t the first understanding, isn’t the patristic understanding, isn’t the process understanding and shouldn’t be used as a straw man to dismiss the whole idea that sin requires atonement as part of reconciliation. My own sense is that much of what Girard is writing about will form the basis of our 21st century understanding of the doctrine – and I want to follow that idea this year. I’m planning on starting by spending some time reviewing the classical historical understandings of Atonement – with a particular eye on the process by which a particular understanding stopped being plausible and how the subsequent view became so. I’ve got a couple of books on that topic on my reading list for this Spring. I’ll try to post some reviews as I get them read.

Energy Price impact on parish and diocesan life:

I’ve been harping about peak oil and energy shortages on this blog for years now. I think I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of shift away from an imported oil based economy. I don’t know what the next energy economy will be based upon, though I suspect that it will be a mosaic of different sources rather than the monolithic one we have now. Coal will make a comeback. Fracking is already wrecking ecological havoc on PA and LA, but I don’t imagine that we’ll stop frantically searching for more energy here in the states. Look for off shore drilling to expand, solar furnaces to become more important and perhaps even a return to nuke power.

But all of those alternatives are more expensive than what we have now. (Which is why they’re only bit players at the moment.) As we move in that direction, you’re going to see energy costs go up across the board. Since wages for American workers have been stagnant for decades, this is going to effectively suck more money out of our market economy. It’s going to limit sprawl based city growth. Etc…

It’s also going to force us to reevaluate some of our basic economic models for parish life. Will people still be willing to drive 30 or 40 miles to continue to attend the parish church they grew up in? What will that mean to inner-city parishes. Are the inner-city neighborhoods ready for the migration of the ex-urban dwellers back into the city core? What will that mean for small urban parishes? What about large ones? What about large sprawling buildings built when energy was basically free? Will we see a return to small buildings? (Apparently that’s already happening in the building industry according to friends of mine in the lumber business.)

I think it’s time to flesh out some answers to these questions.


The Archbishop of Canterbury has been calling for the development of a consensus understanding of what constitutes an Anglican hermeneutic. If I recall correctly, I think the last Lambeth Conference did as well. I’m not at all convinced that there *is* an Anglican hermeneutic – at least not at this particular moment in history, but I think the fact that we’re calling for one is a tacit admission that we feel the lack of reasonably broad consensus about how to approach biblical texts in the 21st century.

I stumbled across a note on an online forum a few months ago that was essentially a request for more information about the Alexandrian model of hermeneutics vs. an Antiochian one. The idea was that the Antiochian method was more literal, the Alexandrian more allegorical. I’ve been thinking about that since I read it. I don’t think there’s a neat division into two schools – that’s a little simplistic to say the least – but the idea that maybe its time to rethink our feelings about allegorical understandings of scripture has stuck with me.

Diana Butler Bass came out to visit us in Phoenix this past Spring and she commended our Cathedral on the good work we were doing re-traditioning our message and preaching of the Gospel. I think she’s absolutely right that we need to focus on doing this – it’s a piece with finding a new approach to the Atonement isn’t it?

I’ve noticed that in preaching to a relatively young, bright congregation here in Phoenix, the most excitement seems to come when I can help them discover a traditional mystical and/or allegorical understanding of text. That seems to resonate more with the hearers than (to borrow a phrase from Spurgeon I think) focusing on the historicity of the Jebusites.

When I was in seminary the idea of preaching an allegorical interpretation of a scriptural passage was viewed with extreme distaste. Like “fail the preaching course” distaste. But the typical preaching we were encouraged to do just doesn’t seem to be connecting anymore. Maybe it’s time to look back to the Middle Ages and late Roman period and find new ways to connect with a post-modern, post-positivist audience. Clearly we need to avoid the trap of the “Seven characteristics of a Camel” sort of allegory, but my own sense is that it’s time for us to think this through again.

So that’s what I’m going to do – I want to spend some time reading up on the historical development of hermeneutics. I’ve got one book identified and I’ll be looking around for some others. Suggestions would be welcome!


That should keep me busy for the year. One of my resolutions this year is to try to post more personally speculative pieces here with the hope that you’ll all join in the conversation with me to help me think through these questions. You’ve all done this in the past, and I’m amazed to look back over the past 5 or 6 years to see how you’ve challenged my thinking and helped me to come to a better understanding of answers to the questions I’ve been wrestling with.

Thanks for that, and thanks in advance for your continued participation with the process this coming year.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Margaret Moore says

    I agree wholeheartedly with you about preaching. Even in congregations that aren’t young and/or bright, the sermons that reach them and help them to let God be part of their lives seem to be ones that tell a story – a fable, if you will. The myth within the scripture that relates to life today. I noticed that David Keill posted a photo of him preparing for GOEs in 1993 and that he mentioned the Simpsons in his answers. More people can relate to the Simpsons and the more recent equivalents than can relate to the Council of Nicea and the creed that is part of our liturgy. I tend to do a lot of story-telling when I preach (which isn’t often right now), casting the scripture into a modern storyline that conjures a picture for the people, an improbable scenario, a sentimental feeling of wonder, a time of great change.
    You may find that the Episcopal/Anglican hermeneutic is too varied and broad to be codified. Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury is already discovering this as he struggles with holding the Anglican Communion together…much like holding yesterday’s cornbread together or the sugar cookie with too much shortening.

  2. I am delighted with your focus and look forward to the posts. Re thinking about scripture, I know I need a lot of help, but I am doing a book on the psalms with some attention to the PRDS (Peshat, Remez, Drash, Sod) approach to reading. We also did a study of atonement about a year ago and our leader raised a lot of good questions – he is a server but otherwise quite untrained in the scripture. I was very impressed with the questions.

  3. Martial Artist says

    As a former Episcopalian for almost 40 years (raised LCMS), reunited with Rome in the past year and a Myers-Briggs inTj, and despite the fact that I am officially a senior citizen, I can add my personal affirmation of the need to engage the reality that encounter with God, whether in the Eucharist, in homilies, or in prayer, is an encounter with mystery. And that is an essential element of worship for me. Take that away and make it purely an intellectual exercise and, from my point of view, you have eviscerated the Gospel.
    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  4. Your planned re-consideration of the Anselmian version of atonement is most welcomed and inviting. I will follow along eagerly.
    In my view and experience, to a critical thinking population, the Anselmian version not only doesn’t make sense, but it also becomes a barrier to church participation and discipleship. It is no exaggeration to say that this may be the most important issue for theological reflection for our age because so much flows from it.
    As you work through a re-considered view of atonement, I’d be very interested in the implications and impact a re-worked view would have on liturgy and hymns. It is often true that we believe as we pray. If our prayer language doesn’t reflect a re-considered atonement, we may still be “stuck” in a bygone era, despite our re-thinking efforts.
    Other issues will surely develop. That is exciting to think about!

  5. I think your point is well taken Keith. We do stand in danger of putting too much of our faith in Rationalism – especially as we stand on this side of the enlightenment. I had a very adverse reaction to reading Aulen’s attempt to develop a “Scientific Theology” – as you say the enterprise damages the subject by removing the mystery that is so much a part of coming into the presence of the divine.
    But I think it’s still important for us to be able to find a way to speak about the Atonement in a manner which makes it plausible for people in the present, post-modern age, for whom their use of rational logic means that the older classical interpretations no longer work. Here’s hoping that the enterprise will bear fruit.

  6. On the Atonement the “proper” place to begin is, of course, the collect for Proper 15. Before saying too much more about the “Anselmian” notion, you may want to consult with our local Anselm scholar about how caricatured and misunderstood Anselm is these days.
    I can certainly make some recommendations on patristic and early medieval hermeneutics since that’s the focus of my dissertation; I’ll start thinking of a list for you…

  7. Yah – I’m aware the Anselm’s position on the Atonement, like his ontological proof is not exactly the same as what is attributed to him. But it works for the purpose of shorthand. (I’m certainly open to a better terminology if you’ve got one to suggest Derek.)
    Spent part of the morning reading up on Kant’s treatment of evil. The author raises the point that we need to decide early on whether or not we believe that our moral situation is so dire that we are helpless to save ourselves or not. If we can save ourselves, then we have to ask about the meaning of the Cross…
    Love to have a list of recommendations on early hermeneutics Derek – that would be grand! I was hoping you and other specialists would chime in.

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