Our book club conversation

In my last post, I hinted that I might want to say a little more about Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and something too about the book club conversation last night.

Although there was a bit of grumbling about Hart’s page-long paragraphs and 50-word sentences, there was a recognition by most of us, I think, that this is a significant and mind-changing book. One participant called it “profound,” and another said, in its praise, that it “vigorously undoes alternative narratives I’ve carried with me.” Another, who knew Hart’s earlier book, The Beauty of the Infinite, and had found it somewhat show-offish, liked this latest tome very much.

Paul Doerksen, our host and leader, is a fan as well. (He also offered critique, especially some of the points raised by Paul Griffiths’ review of the book in First Things). He told us that Hart is considered one of the most brilliant scholars in the theological world today. “Period.” And this book, he said, is going to “linger” long after people have stopped reading the “Ditchkins crowd.” Not that the new atheists are anywhere close to the central concern of this book. They’re really more the occasion for it — and for Hart’s insistence that there’s another story and that it has to be told. It was good to hear Paul go through Hart’s thesis, chapter by chapter, as he identifies the false narrative of the Enlightenment we’ve been suckered into and then unfolds the one he’s convinced is true.

One point I’d not picked up in my reading was how strongly Hart’s Eastern Orthodox affiliation comes through when he talks about salvation in his chapter (15) on “Divine Humanity.” I guess by then my Anabaptist/Protestant antennae were tingling so much over his stirring account of Christian humanism (which surely all the Christian traditions share) — this “immense dignity–this infinite capacity…the transcendent possibility and strange grandeur present within each person” — that I missed the fine points of soteriological difference. (Then again, maybe I don’t know the fine points of soteriological difference!)

The enormity of that transformation of thought, of dignity, of caring is the heart of the story, and Hart hones in on it by drawing attention to a small biblical detail in a way that both surprised and moved me, a way that Paul Doerksen pronounced “achingly beautiful” and worth the price of the book. [SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read the book but intend to, you may want to come to this on your own and stop reading here.] 

That detail? Peter’s bitter weeping after hearing the cock crow the morning after he’d betrayed his Lord. Let me quote a little and leave it at that.

To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us — Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal — is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears… To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice… But…it is only in Peter that one sees [as literary critic Erich Auerbach noted] “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion. [166-7]

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