By LeRoy Lawson
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era)
Mark A. Noll
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, reprint edition, 2015
When a speaker is teetering on the brink of death, ravaged by bone marrow cancer, you pay attention. When he is poet Christian Wiman, sharing his personal insight into the Bright Abyss, readers—religious and nonreligious alike—ponder his every thought.
Wiman is struggling—against death, against the danger of being misunderstood, against his own misunderstanding, against our general complacency, yours and mine. He peers into his uncharted future. He doesn’t flinch. Neither does he pretend a confidence he doesn’t feel. Will the bone marrow transplant be ultimately successful? Will he live to see his very young twin daughters grown? Will his recently-discovered-real-yet-undefined faith carry him through?
And what does that faith consist of, really? In a culture of doubt is there room for Christian belief, or is his talk about Christ mere foolishness, a hoping against hope? Even as Wiman talks about God, he wonders who or what God is.
This is a book of faith—and doubt. Of orthodoxy—and mysticism. Of theology and literature and scientific questioning all rolled into a philosophy of paradox. He confidently asserts “on the one hand,” then takes it back “on the other hand.” Both hands seem true. He prays, then wonders what his prayers mean, how they’ll be heard—and by whom. He pushes the boundaries of language and then steps over them, leaving the reader perplexed but certain there is profound meaning there, if only one can dig it out.
Some things for sure you won’t find in this book: religious clichés, easy answers, or serene reassurance. Wiman is not comfortable with comfortable religion. Neither, however, does he take refuge in the bigotry of the intelligentsia who preen themselves in their superiority to religious believers. What we get instead is the precision of a poet struggling to find the exact word to match his complex response—as an unabashed believer—to questions of suffering and meaning and hope.
And hope. Wiman stares into the abyss—and discovers brightness there. Life is not confined to our senses, any more than Jesus was locked forever in a tomb. There is resurrection. There is reason to hope. As he says, “Faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life.” I’ll be pondering that sentence for a long time. And this one: “I never truly felt the pain of un-belief until I began to believe.”
You won’t read this book quickly. You have to bite off a small chunk, chew deliberately, then savor the aftertaste. You are, after all, contemplating life’s most serious questions. Death is no joke, something to be taken lightly. Neither is life.
A Crisis Still with Us
I am grateful for reprints. I missed Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis the first time around, but took advantage of its 2015 reprint edition. It deserves this second release.
A thoughtful, provocative reading of the theological sources—one could almost say causes—of America’s greatest bloodletting, this history probes the strengths and weaknesses of Protestant Christianity’s stance regarding the authority of Scripture. His conclusion? “The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.”
In the 1860s, 40 percent of Americans subscribed to Evangelical Christianity, the “largest, most formidable, subculture in American society.” The church could claim the numbers—but not the clout. Believers of all stripes thought they had “the power within themselves to discover the true meaning of sacred texts, the power to see things in general as they really were, the power to act effectively against those in the wrong, and the power to choose righteously when faced by moral dilemmas.”
The trouble was, they all thought this, on both sides: pro-slavery and anti-slavery, pro-Union and pro-Confederacy. All appealed to the Scriptures and all found in them just what they wanted to find.
Two leaders, on separate sides of the argument, came to the same conclusion. Henry Clay (pro-Union) said, “This sundering of the religious ties which have hitherto bound our people together, I consider the greatest source of danger to our country.” John C. Calhoun (pro-Confederacy) predicted before the United States Senate in 1850, a decade before armed fighting broke out, “that when the national bonds represented by the great Protestant denominations would all break, ‘nothing will be left to hold the States together except force.’”
So the war came. They were divided over slavery, the North and the South, but not over race. “So seriously fixed in the minds of white Americans, including most abolitionists, was the certainty of black racial inferiority that it overwhelmed biblical testimony about race, even though most Protestant Americans claimed that Scripture was in fact their supreme authority in adjudicating such matters.”
Noll reaches beyond America to see how writers, both Catholic and Protestant, in Canada, Britain, France, and elsewhere viewed the conflict. Predictably, he found that Catholics were afraid of the Evangelical reliance on the Bible as the final authority, because that led to individual interpretation—and chaos. What both Catholics and Protestants abroad alike observed, though, was “that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. The success of the North’s military machine in resolving the debate over slavery in combination with the failure of freewheeling theological discussion to handle that same problem did suggest the need for some overarching authority to pacify moral disputes before they turned violent.” Absent that authority, military conflict was the inevitable solution. Mammon trumped religion.
Here, then, is the paradox Noll describes: “The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery.” Then after the war was over there came “the enduring reality of racism, which displayed its continuing force almost as virulently through the mob and the rope as it had in the chain and the lash.”
Does the Bible support slavery? “As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.”
And that’s where we are today. Lip service is given to Scripture, but we are ruled instead by commerce, by economics, by deep-rooted prejudice, by more secular concerns—by money. As a result, “Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of a religious perspective in the body politic.” We never fully recovered.
Noll doesn’t think this sidelining of religion is all bad. He notes that America became a more secular country after the war. It was “more genuinely hospitable to Protestants who were not from Britain, to Christians who were not Protestants, to theists who were not Christians, and to citizens of any sort who did not believe in God.” The negative of this development is that it is “harder for deep, religiously rooted moral conviction to exert a decisive influence on the shaping of public life.”
As I read, I kept thinking of the parallels between yesterday’s issues and today’s. Can you name one issue on which American Christians speak with a unified voice? One topic on which each side doesn’t confidently quote chapter and verse against its opponents?
Who is right? Who is reading the Scriptures correctly? I, of course, think I am. But so does my misguided but quite sincere opponent. Is the only way to resolve our differences to go to court? Or war?
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.