Posts Tagged ‘Robert Farrar Capon’

Love, Sex, and Grace

September 15, 2010

Having finally started to recover from the horrendous evils of near-fatal man-flu (that’s how it felt anyway), I’m back to blogging properly again. On the recommendation of Chaplain Mike, I’ve just finished reading Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace. While reading Capon, I’ve been pondering the true nature of love, which is why there has been the odd post of love poetry recently. There would have been more, but, so I’ve been told in no uncertain terms, this does not say to others that I’m a romantic soul, rather, that I’m a “big girl’s blouse”. Now, I don’t normally pay much mind to what others think of me. Yet, this time I’m going to cease and desist, for I do not exactly have a reputation for being Mr Smooth. Among my dating debacles are to be found: buying chocolates for the girl with diabetes; giving flowers to a girl with allergies, and; ordering steak, rare and bloody, when out for dinner with a vegetarian. Seriously though, how was I supposed to know? There’s no doubt that Cupid has shot me with his arrow; unfortunately it was right in the back, squarely between the shoulder blades. Sigh. Anyway, enough of doing my therapy in public and back to Capon…

Warning: rant follows, avoid if squeamish

I’m not even going to attempt a full review/interaction with Capon’s book, needless to say, it’s all about grace. In fact, Capon rightly believes that God’s completely free gift of grace to us hideous sinners is so shocking that he’ll try to shock his readers into pondering it afresh. To this end, he gives us a “parable” of his own devising, just an aesthetic image to bring everything into focus.

His yarn is woven around Paul and Laura, two adulterous lovers, one is a college professor and the other is his student. Capon warns us from the outset that nothing bad will happen to them, their spouses will never know, and they’ll have a perfectly wonderful time; he even indulges in describing one of their tawdry, afternoon sex-sessions. During the parable, Paul confesses all to Laura – about his current string of mistresses of which she is just one. He confesses that he has no intention of giving these others up for her, let alone his poor wife. Laura, in an act of utter “grace”, simply accepts Paul for the worthless wretch he undoubtedly is.

Thus, in fictional form, Capon tells us that we’ve been given an insight into the radical nature of grace, even, or perhaps especially, in a story which shocks our moral and ethical sensibilities. If we can grasp the essence of grace as he’s presented it to us, then we’ll be able to see more clearly how even more radical and shocking God’s grace is for us. Not only did this grace land Jesus on a Roman cross, but this grace raises spiritual corpses; grace is life-giving and it brings resurrection.

Where to start? Perhaps it is because I’ve been very heavily influenced by my studies on the development of Orthodoxy with its doctrine of theosis, participating in the very life of God with everything that entails (not to mention Wesley on sanctification, even if he went too far), but I really didn’t like this book. Capon himself tells us that Christian truth is often two-sided and paradoxical and we must hold both truths together to be faithful. In my view, Capon fails in this regard in a manner which is unsatisfactory theologically, and close to pastorally irresponsible. Given the nature of the book, I am genuinely baffled by the kind of Christian subculture Capon feels he must address in the manner he does, for one’s imagination would conjure up some sort of semi-Pelagian form of medieval Roman Catholicism. If so, perhaps my complete unfamiliarity with such a beast partly explains why I found the book to be a bit of a dud – I don’t need to read 300 pages repeating ad nauseam “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” I get it. Honestly. I really do.

I really want to applaud Capon for trying to address this warped version of Christianity, but I just think he has only succeeded in giving us something as equally imbalanced to replace it;  something which comes very close to an unpleasant dualism between grace and works – more anon. Nonetheless, specifically, Capon’s parable self-destructs. His protagonists are both complicit in acts of wanton betrayal and treachery. Whatever grace they find or provide for one another is always at someone else’s expense, not their own. By contrast, God’s grace is so supremely radical because it is given from a position of absolute holiness. Where we should expect judgement, we find grace. God reaches out to us in the costly vulnerability of love; truly risking all for our sakes.  Capon’s “parable” doesn’t give us anything resembling this. The “parable” may only have been used as a tactic to shock us into sitting up and paying attention, but anyone who has seen the devastation wreaked upon the lives of those left trailing in the wake of adultery will find his cavalier aesthetic, to say the least, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

So, yes, we are saved by grace alone through faith – not by our own hands or attempts to curry favour with the Almighty. Absolutely. This is a precious truth – thank God. But one fears that Capon’s telling of this may lead us to be paralyzed by it. He separates out confession/repentance from any causally-intertwined relationship with reform. This may be so in solely human relationships. However, in the context of the divine-human embrace, it is God’s own Spirit which indwells the repentant heart. It is God’s own Spirit who vivifies our rotten spiritual corpses, who renews and transforms us, conforming us to the image of the Son, Christ our Lord. God’s own Spirit does this work and it is an essential feature of any discussion of grace, law and works. We can’t simply read Rom 8:1 that “now there is no condemnation” without fully taking on board the rest of that glorious chapter in Romans. Yet, in Capon’s parable, Paul has an absolute determination to continue just as before – to continue wholeheartedly (unrepentantly) in sin. What a pale shadow his “repentance/confession” casts. There is a different character altogether to confession to God (metanoia meaning ‘to turn around’). As such, in what sense is this really reckoning with the true meaning of the grace God has offered us in Christ? As Ken Schenck put it a few days ago, “Christian groups may differ in their definitions of sin and they may differ in how much they think a Christian will normally sin, but no tradition worthy of the name Christian will teach that Christians will continue to sin no differently than before they received the Holy Spirit.” This is very different to the portrait given us by Capon in his parable. [Quite coincidentally, there have been a number of posts about this issue around the blogs recently.]

The great emphasis of many a NT writer is that we are saved by grace through faith for works (just read the Book of Revelation alone on works!). This can’t be disregarded. Capon has focused intently on grace but to the detriment of sanctification and the “obedience of faith”. It’s a great shame that he has given us something so totally imbalanced, skewing the bigger picture, especially when it’s apparent that he can be more careful and nuanced when he wishes and could have provided us with a much more adequate wrestling with these difficult issues. For example, he makes clear that grace does not mean that moral order has been abrogated.

Even if I trifle with those demands in a fiction – even if God in his grace is willing to trifle with them by accepting us despite our transgressions of them – there is simply no way of coming to a serious conclusion that morality has been set aside. The law remains the standard of our nature. To be what the law says we should be is the only way we can be what we really are. No one breaks the law with impunity because by every transgression we and the society in which we live become progressively and perceivably less human. But for all that, no matter how far below the level of our true humanity we sink, we retain some vision, however clouded, of what that humanity is. The law stands as a vision of the true beauty of our nature: in most instances, we go on wishing that we ourselves could have kept it, and we are in all instances fully convinced that our neighbors should have kept it. The few pleasant delinquencies for which we manage to fake out permission remain just that: few. (Capon:148–149)

When he writes like this it just leaves me incredibly disappointed and frustrated, imagining what this book might have been. I did, however, enjoy thinking through his musings on the atonement/reconciliation to God and on hell/judgement. And he does cut right to the chase on grace at points too:

the last rule of the life of grace is that nothing can separate you from it. Not your faults, not your vices, not your being a brat about refusing the cross – not even your rubbing salt into the wounds of Christ or kicking God when he’s down. Because he took you by a voluntary crucifixion for your sake, and he takes it all as the price of taking you.

Wonderful! But again, let’s not allow this to downplay what happens to our lives beyond confession and turning to God.

Finally, Capon’s own vulgar and ad hominem style (which seems to aim at insulting his readers as much as possible along the way) doesn’t inspire me at all. He is at his best as a communicator when he stops trying to be edgy and provocative and, consequently, much better conveys grace. Ironically, his style continually draws one’s eyes to Capon himself and away from the subject of the book – the wondrous grace of God. Personally, I think this whole discussion of grace, law, and works needs to be reconfigured in terms of love: our loving response to God’s act of exuberant and gratuitous grace and love in Christ and by his Spirit.

I’ll leave the last word to Tom Wright:

Never allow yourself to get into the way of thinking that, just because nothing you can do can earn his favour, God isn’t pleased with what you attempt in his name. Precisely because love cannot be earned or deserved, it is always delighted when it receives answering love.

I.C. Rating: 5/10
To buy: In the US; In the UK