Both written in the 70s, Christian Thought is meant to be more academic, while Vision at Patmos is intended for non-seminarians. We need both kinds of books in the church, and my issue has nothing to do with intended audience. As a resource, Vision is fine in many ways. The historic and political contexts it supplies are helpful, even if some of it doesn’t dovetail perfectly with the same material in Christian Thought. My biggest issue with the book is the frequent (and frequently unsatisfying) theodicies it presents. (Theodicy means an attempt to explain why bad things happen when God is both powerful and good. Sometimes, theodicies are satisfying. Often, they are not.) I think the authors are just trying to give us the writer of Revelation’s (John of Patmos) understanding of the forces at work in his world, but that’s not fundamentally clear to me from the text. In the right hands, Vision at Patmos would still be a good resource for Bible study.
I’ve also started reading Bread for the Journey by Henri Nouwen. The introduction is absolutely delightful, which is a word I never use with 100 percent sincerity except in this case.
Yesterday in church, we celebrated the faithful departed with an All Saint’s liturgy adapted in part from the UCC Book of Worship and other resources. We used the Luke 6 text, which worked well in the context of the lectionary readings from the past few weeks. Hearing Jesus name the blessed ones (the poor, the hungry, the mourning) in the larger context of readings and lessons on the rich young ruler and the healing of Bartimaus helped tie the last few weeks together in a way that I think was helpful.
The liturgy reminded us that that just as people gathered to be with Jesus on the plain in Luke 6, we are also gathered by Jesus, here and now. More difficultly, it challenged us to thank God for calling forth the ones we miss. That’s a thought to hold in tension with the unsatisfying nature of theodicy. I don’t believe that when people die in accidents or because of the direct actions of others that God has orchestrated those things as a way of calling people into his presence. I also don’t believe we’re meant to cling to theodicy in the first place. I do believe that when we suffer, God suffers with us. I do believe that’s one of the central revelations we’re meant to encounter in the image of Jesus on the Cross. I do believe that whatever else God can’t do, God absolutely can and will use our frailty for good, will use horrible situations that God did not stage or preordain to manifest and normalize love in this world. I do believe God wants us to be willing agents in this process, so that we may, among other things, experience God’s love and witness resurrection. I believe that’s one of the central revelations we’re meant to take from the empty tomb. Remembering our faithful departed means, in part, remembering that in very real ways, their tombs are also empty.