Thoughts While Ascending the Stairs with Books

Ascension Day! What better Ascension activity than “lift up” all the stuff from the basement to the main floor of the house in front of the likelihood that our basement is going to get water in it do to the Missouri River flooding that will start in earnest tomorrow as the Corps of Engineers opens the flood gates at Gavins Point Dam.

This afternoon what’s left of my theological library was ascending the basement stairs. Certain books brought certain thoughts, certain feelings, certain dreads, and certain joys. (And a certain soreness of back and arms … man, are books heavy!) Among them:

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When I was in Bible College I (along with nearly every other student) bought Wuest’s Word Studies, Strong’s and Young’s Concordance, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Robertson’s, Word Pictures, etc. Just holding them in my hand I was transported back to that sense of reverence we had at Big Sky for those books that plumbed the depths of “the original languages” for those who didn’t speak them well. I think that sense of reverence is the primary reason I dislike Dan Brown books with such an irrational exuberance. Dan Brown has made a career of writing books whose plot line is driven by the secret knowledge of gnostic Christianity. Such secret knowledge (according to the Gnostics and Dan Brown’s imagination) will set us free (while keeping the uncomfortable moral and ethical implications at arm’s length – ethics are transmogrified into secret, intellectual knowledge). …

… This was precisely the attraction of Wuest, et. al. It was secret knowledge that led to the particular knowledge-based salvation purveyed by the Bible College.

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One of the great sociological works of contemporary Presbyterianism (and Protestantism as a whole) was the groundbreaking Presbyterian Presence series, a four volume unvarnished historico-theologico-sociological look at the PC(USA). It was written by Joe Coalter, Louis Weeks, and John Mulder. (Full disclosure: Coalter was the librarian and one of my Church History professors as well as a brilliant professor of my Research class, Lou Weeks taught me both church polity and church history, and John Mulder, was the President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, when he wasn’t teaching me the history of theology.)

Ascending the stairs with this set in my hands, I had an idea: Could it be that any understanding of Presbyterians (and Protestants in general) must necessarily be sociological as much as theological. Without a magisterium (or maybe that’s too Roman Catholic – without Bishops who are specifically the maintainers of the theological tradition), Presbyterianism is necessarily reduced to populism. And populism can never be understood primarily as a theological movement. Sociology always trumps theology at the end of the day.

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And finally, when I pulled Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful The Message of the Psalms off the shelf, I was reminded of the first quote at the start of the book. It bears repeating:

“Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken.” (Rabbit in John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich)


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