Culture At Large

Q&A Brent Laytham

Nathan Bierma

Brent Laytham is Professor of Theology and Ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, and editor of the new book God Does Not...: Entertain, Play Matchmaker, Hurry, Demand Blood, Cure Every Illness. This book follows a 2004 book he also edited: God Is Not ...: Religious, Nice, "One of Us," An American, A Capitalist.

What is the background of these two books, and what is their goal?

Five of my friends came to North Park University over the course of the 2002-03 academic year to give talks that punctured a caricature of God from church or popular culture. I thought up the theme because our campus theme that year focused on the question Who is God? As the campus talked about and planned for that theme, I remember thinking that's not a question that we ask with a blank slate. As followers of Jesus Christ, we've met God face-to-face. So I designed the talks to demonstrate that asking who God is always requires us to also state who God isn't. Those talks became the basis for the first book, along with an introduction and concluding chapter that I wrote. Though North Park didn't have funding for another round of talks, I did have 6 more friends, so we did another book.

Why are these caricatures of God so persistent in North America?

Caricatures of God are persistent everywhere, not just in North America. The human penchant for idolatry runs deep and strong. That said, most of the caricatures that this new book tries to explode are what happens when a thin and unimaginative theology becomes the unwitting accomplice of principalities with a benevolent face. After all, who doesn't want to be healthy, to be safe, to be loved, to be happy? We all do, and in the end the Easter message promises that we shall receive all these things in abundance. But on the near side of resurrection Jesus offers us his cross to bear. Here in America, though, the cross doesn't sell nearly as well as health, security, romance and entertainment. So the principalities step in: medicine offers to make us well, the military promises to keep us safe, the mythos of romance promises true love, and Hollywood gives us happily ever after. Each of these offers is a caricature of the real thing, but our hunger is so deep that we easily settle for the impostor, failing to notice that the caricature of health that we embrace comes with a caricature deity, that the caricature of security we accept includes a caricature deity, etc.

Is there a danger some readers will react to this book by thinking, 'Well I guess God isn't as involved in my life and in our world as I thought'?  How does your closing chapter on God as three persons address this, and how can the Trinity keep us from having too static a view of who God is and what God does?

I actually think that readers of the earlier chapters will be quite sure that God is involved, since none of my coauthors say "God does not" without also claiming "but God does...." What God does, however, is not quite as predictable as our cultural caricatures. As Joel Shuman puts it, there is a 'wild faithfulness' about God's relation to the world. We can trust that, but we certainly cannot tame it, nor turn it to our self-chosen and self-serving ends. I wrote the final chapter to try to indicate how what God does and who God is are perfectly integrated. Whereas a Sunday School level theology usually tells us that God is triunethe Father, Son and Holy Spirit it may leave us thinking that these three persons are a kind of heavenly committee that eventually decided to create the world, and then later to redeem it. I try to show that who God is is already an activity of giving and receiving love. Therefore the loving acts of making and mending the world turn out to be perfectly in character with who God is.

Read an excerpt from "God Does Not..."

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