After Crucifixion: A Keen Book (and interview)

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February 9, 2014

What will probably be remembered as having the greatest reviews ever, After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology is, unlike much of what I’m sent, a stellar read. Many of the theology books that come my way are either trying to mimic that guy I always confuse with Henry Rollins (‘Peter something or another’) or they are attempting to ‘out’ neo-Anabaptist the next neo-Anabaptist. Unlike the aforementioned poop stains, After Crucifixion is actually a work of theology.

Imagine that coming from the world of Christian publishing.

I sat down with author, poet, and film critic extraordinaire, Craig Keen, for a few questions that may or may not have anything to do with his latest book.

 

EIGHT QUESTIONS WITH CRAIG KEEN

1) First things first: I’ve noticed a number of people in recent years attempting to discuss martyrdom without referencing The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom; yet, obviously, you had the good sense to know what’s what. What’s wrong with all of those other folks?

I have five hypotheses:

(1) All those other folks are idiots.

(2) All those other folks are sexual perverts.

(3) All those other folks prefer Cheese Nips to Cheez-Its.

(4) All those other folks read the title too quickly and thought it was The Purple Crown Victoria.

(5) All of the above.

(It is nonetheless a really good book. I’ve used it several times as a text in courses. I think it works especially well as a way of thinking “church.” I can’t remember the author, though. Sergeant . . . something, I think. Anyway, I associate him with Gary Cooper, for some reason.)

 

2) God, so I’m told by people who seem to know, created the world in six days, yet you invoke an eighth day of creation (was there a seventh day of creation? if God was napping on the seventh, doesn’t that mean that the eighth day of creation is really the seventh day of creation?). Tell us what happens on the eighth day (or what should or could happen on the eighth day).

Kierkegaard says in Works of Love that God has absolutely no understanding of money. Maybe that’s true of all counting. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.

In case that’s not actually right, however, I’ll suggest this: The unproductivity of the seventh day is a big deal in the first creation account in Genesis. It is doxological discourse to be understood in the context of corporate worship, a worship that sets aside a day for doing nothing, a day when the powers of death might have been held off more effectively in other more practical ways. Instead, it is a day without purpose, a day without telos, a day without the logic of investment and return. It is the day Jesus lay dead in his tomb from sundown to sundown. When he is raised on Sunday (which in spite of the propaganda of global capitalism is the first day of the week, not the last), everything begins anew. But it begins anew without brushing the old away. The old is gathered up in the newness of new life—and set free. Every day is now Sabbath. Every day is now to be unproductive. Every day is now without telos. Well, of course, there are still teloi (or teloses, if you prefer), there are still goals that we pursue, but they are released with everything else to the God who raised the abandoned, dead, and damned child of impoverished Galilee. And so, everything was not wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow on the seventh day, but an eighth day was called for, a day in which we are invited with the resurrected crucified Jesus to walk into death and destruction with neither plan nor fear.

 

3) Why did you subtitle your book, ‘The Promise of Theology’? I thought Jesus told us not to make promises.

You’re thinking of Tim Hardin, I think.

(Ed.’s note: Nope, it was Fugazi. Or, maybe it was Naked Eyes. Then again, I could have been thinking of When in Rome. No, no. It was definitely Fugazi.)

In any case, theology does promise and has promise, perhaps is promise. It speaks toward a future that is not built, but that comes, as a gift. If theology speaks well, it speaks—and walks—out into that future, fearlessly. It is that future, that coming future, that verifies theology’s speech. The main title, After Crucifixion, suggests a future, too, though a very ambiguous one. It is not immediately clear how to take the word, “after,” here. Does it signify “subsequence”? Does it signify “pursuit”? The answer to both questions is “Yes!” It is a “Here am I!” response to Jesus’ command to “the crowd with his disciples” to “take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus is the crucified one. He calls the theologian to be crucified at his side. If theology promises anything, it promises that the way, the truth, and the life are found by getting behind and journeying with the Jesus that rebuked Peter at Caesarea Philippi. If theology is a promise, it is an apocalyptic one that unhands “having” as well as “being” precisely as it testifies to the coming of the Reign of God, the coming of a peace that need not back off when assaulted by the Satans of this world who would shower Jesus with compliments, pigeon hole him, and block his way into a life that does not compete with death. The promise of theology is that the powers of this world may kill you, but they cannot determine your future

 

4) Back to martyrdom: I agree with Jon Sobrino when he argues that the church quite possibly does not exist in North America. He argues this, of course, because we are, for the most part, incapable of creating martyrs (here, he is referring to blood-witnesses, not simply the category of witness). And a church without martyrs is not a church (that’s fairly standard theology dating back, oh, about two thousand years). Being the agent of great compromise that I am, I may temper that a bit by simply saying, “Well, perhaps it doesn’t mean the church doesn’t exist, but we should at least ask why it is the case that followers of Jesus, in North America, by and large, are capable of avoiding those things Jesus predicted: the same treatment as ‘their master’, hatred and persecution.” To be fair, I actually really, really dislike a lot of Christians, but not for the kind of reasons that Jesus seemed to think I would. Why can’t the churches in North America produce martyrs?

I think the reason why it’s hard to spot martyrs in the U.S.A. is not that people in power are friends of Jesus. It’s rather because we church people have learned to make absolutely no significant difference in our neighborhoods and cities. What’s really funny is that there are churches full of affluent people who believe they are being mistreated. Some years ago, I was in Fort Worth, Texas, for a wedding. It was being held in “the old sanctuary,” a huge space that could have held many hundreds of people. “The new sanctuary” was built to accommodate a larger crowd. It was breathtakingly gigantic. Both sanctuaries were housed in the same enormous red brick building, a monument to wealth and power. I was standing in this space, when one of its pastors began to tell me about their compassionate work. They were housing half a dozen or so refugees from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina had rendered them homeless. He told me that a phone company had donated cell phones to the refugees, until it realized that a church was housing and otherwise caring for them, at which point it asked for its phones back. There we were talking in a multi-million dollar facility that exuded success if anything ever has, and the pastor looked at me and said, “See, we really are persecuted!” The reason that is a lie is not that churches never face opposition, say, from “the gov’ment.” It is a lie because that opposition is so very rarely substantial. That is because America has learned how to keep us quiet and in place. We are given the task of taking care of human souls, while we leave our nation state alone to take care of human bodies. We may dabble in the care of bodies a little, but only so long as we comply with the state and do nothing that might slow down its machinery. If churches rose up in outrage over drone strikes, the use of torture as population control, the “New Jim Crow” penal system that makes sure that persons of color are robbed of power, the utter monetization of economic relations, the suburban neighborhood with its isolated and isolating nuclear family structure, the violence of American “peace,” and much more, we might find ourselves facing the working end of law enforcement pacification techniques, as, incidentally, some pacifist house churches in Minneapolis did during the Republican National Convention of a few years ago.

 

5) If you could have a world in which Tertullian and Cyprian would have had more of an influence on Christianity than Augustine would you take it? (Why or why not?)

No. They, too, were children of their age, of the culture of Rome, to be more specific. All three had trouble thinking without invoking the juridical imagination that was consciously embodied by Rome. That is not to say that they did not massively critique that imagination. All three did. I still love reading all three. Augustine is too easily dismissed as a Platonist. He was a Platonist, of course, but one who really believed that the particularity of Jesus shows the bankruptcy of Platonism. Tertullian is too easily praised as a dissident who kept Jerusalem cordoned off from Athens. He did seem to want to do that. However, there was a lot of Stoicism in him and he too carved out a route not around, but through Hellenism. In any case, there’s no going back. We are the children of Latinized Greek culture. We have to learn how to take up our cross and follow Jesus in this present evil age, to celebrate the coming of peace, to laugh joyfully in the face of the champions of fear and loneliness, to remember that our hope is not found in national security, but in the one who was tortured and killed in the name of national security.

 

6) You and Stanley Hauerwas. Damn. Those footnotes. I need you to justify them. You have some footnotes that, literally, occupy 4/5 of a page. I’m not making that up. I did the math. For academics, I realize footnotes are crucial, or seem to be crucial—and I enjoy using footnotes, that’s for sure, but if a footnote takes up more page than the body of work itself, do you think that, perhaps, the footnote should not be a footnote?

Everything depends on what footnotes are for. Most of the footnotes in After Crucifixion are (if I may pun it this way) subtextual. They are other voices in the room, other conversations, other lines of thought that I am remembering as I write. I am saying something like, “I just want to let you know, because I think it’s important, that what I’m saying above has a lot to do with what this person or those persons are saying in this or these texts. Sometimes that takes some serious explaining or some serious quoting of texts. Sometimes just a name and a title are enough. Sometimes I’m answering the question, “Why did you use that word?” Probably in the end it comes down to my ADD (actually, I only suspect I have that disorder, I’ve never been diagnosed). But maybe not (isn’t that just what you’d expect someone with ADD to say?). After Crucifixion is a serious piece of academic prose, but it is also a prayer. One of the nicest things Stan Hauerwas ever said to me (and incidentally, he is the one who suggested the title, After Crucifixion) he said after reading the chapter on method. He said, “This is really first-order theology!” That is, he was saying that this is not a book about God, but a book that speaks of God, a book not about prayer, but a book that prays, not “second-order” theology, but an act of faith, hope, and love. If something seemed to need to be said, but would distract from the mode of language of the main body of the text, that is, that would turn a prayer into gossip, it needed to go in a footnote. That is perhaps the main reason why the footnotes are so often so long. (Well, that and that I studied under Wolfhart Pannenberg.)

 

7) When I was reading the story about Chuck and Molly, for some reason, all of the trendier protest against religious commitments of the so-called “new atheists” (where have all the good Nietzscheans gone?) seemed insatiably shallow. Why do you think that story had such an effect on me?

Maybe because you have not forgotten that you are a human being. Maybe because you realize that our bodies think and they think always close to the ground, not far away in neutral territory at a safe distance from danger and loss. It’s also to be said, I think, that we churchy folks seem to think that people are not really devout unless they have some kind of warm-hearted inner serenity. Chuck didn’t have that. If you hooked him up to a meter that measured such things, I don’t know that the needle would move at all. But he loved and he came to follow Jesus—in a strikingly upper middle class American Midwestern Chicagoan way. He is as damnable even in his care for Molly as the rest of us are, but in his mundane single-mindedness, he bears witness to something no heart could ever contain, he bears witness to a way that we do not take into our hearts (e.g., to keep it in mint condition), but that we walk, that we follow, that we go after. I love that story, too!

 

8) I can’t believe you departed from Trevecca Nazarene University just as I became a religion major—that s**t was intentional, wasn’t it?

Yeah, I remember the day. I said, there’s a student at Trevecca named “Tripp”?! I’m outta’ here!

I taught at Trevecca for thirteen years (and actually fasted from going to movies that whole time, because the president told me in my interview that he didn’t want faculty to go to movies). I had gone there after teaching a couple of years at Point Loma in San Diego. That was a good place, too. I don’t regret leaving either place, however. I’d gotten to the point in Nashville that I could imagine staying there for the rest of my life. It had become a kind of Ur of the Chaldeans to me. I loved my students, I loved Trevecca’s unpretentiousness, I loved the complexity of life in the South, and I loved San Antonio Taco Company. But it was time to leave. Actually, the new president, Millard Reed, had refused the appeals of the Religion Department and in particular of Ray Dunning, whom I’d have succeeded, to make me professor of theology. Millard told me to my face that he was looking for someone with better PR appeal to regional pastors. He wanted me to stay on as professor of philosophy, but I had already waited my fourteen years for Leah. So, I took a job at Olivet Nazarene University as professor of systematic theology and philosophy, stayed there for nine years, and from there I traveled to Azusa Pacific University, where I have taught systematic theology for the past ten and a half years. It’s been a great journey. I’ve been doing this kind of work for thirty-five and a half years. That’s a long time and a good time to publish a weird introduction to theology.

[Ed.’s note: The primary reason I stayed at Trevecca, besides their lovely faculty, as well as the general feeling that every single thing I did was a breach of one of their Pharisaic laws (no offense to the Pharisees), was San Antonio Taco Company. That restaurant is brilliant. Now go pick up Craig’s book. And three meatless tacos. With extra cheese. And guacamole. No onions. And a sweet tea. Thank you.]