Friday, April 12, 2013

Book Review: "When Donkeys Talk" by Tyler Blanski

Tyler Blanski doesn't think much of the modern way of looking at the world. That is, he doesn't like the Enlightenment rationalist way of seeing nature as nothing more than a collection of moving atoms bouncing off of each other (in scientific terms) and people as nothing more than isolated individuals doing basically the same thing. He thinks we need to have a radical transformation in our worldview that brings back the enchantment and magic of existence, that views people and society as connected organisms rather than biological machines, and that has a theology that allows a donkey to talk. (Not all the time, of course, but in that special category of event known as a "miracle.") This is the older and better worldview held by Christians in the early church and Middle Ages (Blanski himself studied the Middle Ages at Oxford).

The Good

There's much that is good in the book. It is well written, fast paced, and interesting. While it's a bit full of personal vignettes for my taste ("we were out camping looking at the stars and I thought..." sorts of things as springboards to the discussion), Blanski used them well and kept the book moving forward at a decent clip.
Moreover, the author is clearly well-read, thoughtful, and creative. His artful blend of theology, history, and cultural criticism is always interesting and occasionally even a delight to read.

In terms of the book's substance, Blanski does an excellent job of reminding us of several things that we as Christians in the technological age are particularly prone to forget. Among others, these include:

  • That we are saved into a community. This community (the church) is not a community of isolated individuals willing to endure each other for an hour a week, it is a living organism onto which we are grafted. This organism is defined by the covenant and is as much a reality as the physical universe.
  • That conversation is a critical part of Christian (even of human) life. This is not so much explicitly stated as it is implicit in the way Blanski goes about writing his book. Most of his theological reflections begin with the relation of a conversation of dialogue he has had with his friends. In the past I have criticized other authors for exclusively relying on conversation as a means of discovering truth rather than approaching Scripture. However, Blanski goes about this in the right way. He clearly knows his Bible already and has several good relationships with those who do as well. Even his conversations with non-Christians are good models of how and what we may learn from those who do not share the faith. 
  • That we should wonder at the mystery and grandeur of creation and of the Creator it reveals. It is all too easy for us to forget to be amazed that anything exists at all, so say nothing of how that existence is full of Beauty. We should have a continuously growing sense of delight in life. Our modernist tendencies to think of the world as a giant machine and of ourselves as independent and autonomous agents within it squelch this sense of delight and wonder, and offer as substitutes only the unsatisfying parodies of pop culture and momentary cheap thrills. One of the ways we (especially as Christians) can find, nurture, and develop this wonder is through a proper understanding of liturgy and sacramentalism. In the sacraments of baptism and communion, we see a picture of human life as it should be and salvation as it is offered to us in Christ. And through those pictures we discover that, in a sense, all of life is itself sacramental and liturgical. 
None of these arguments are particularly new-- Blanski's criticisms of modernity are basically contemporary criticisms of modernity wrapped up in the language informed by Medieval Christianity. Which means that there is something of substance here worth the attention of a thoughtful Christian trying to think carefully about how to live in the modern world.

The Less Good

Despite these strengths (and they are strengths), I think I'd still hesitate to endorse this book or recommend it as any kind of go-to text for a Christian. The three things listed above are important, but Blanski raises them to such levels (perhaps in an over-correction of modern ills) that they run the danger of becoming unhelpful, and even borderline inappropriate- though not, perhaps, openly heretical. What seems to have happened is that Blanski has elevated his love for creation and existence to the point where the reality of sin and, consequently, the nature and necessity of atonement are lost.

If we think of salvation as involving a balance between the God's completed present work and God's future recreation of the world, Blanski has too much of the "already" and not enough "not yet." Don't get me wrong, I very much prefer this kind of imbalance to the fundamentalist approach that would swing the other direction and disdain the current world with a kind of spiteful anticipation of the world to come. But that said,  the focus here is entirely too much on the Creation and Incarnation, and not nearly enough on the Crucifixion and Resurrection as well. Modern Christians do need to be reminded to delight in existence; but we equally need to be reminded of the deep reality of sin, the necessity for the forgiveness that comes through the cross, and the promise of resurrection into a new creation.

This over-emphasis leads to the sorts of other over-emphases one would expect. For example, Blanski has entirely too high a view of liturgy and sacrament. In declaring the whole world to be "sacramental" and all of life to be "liturgical", the result is that he pushes the actual sacraments and liturgy to inappropriately high levels. In his chapter on baptism, for example, one gets the impression that Blanski believes in baptismal regeneration (as in, dipping someone in water is what saves them, rather than faith in the Gospel). It may be that Blanski is just pushing the symbolic language a bit too hard and that he does not actually embrace that particular Romanist heresy, but the language remains unclear and at times suggestive that he might.

I've already mentioned the biggest problem, but it bears repetition. In a sense, despite the title and continual references through the book, Blanski ignores one of the major lessons of Balaam. It's not just amazing that a donkey could speak (though that is certainly true), it's likewise amazing that a man who had heard a donkey speak and who was himself a prophet was still more in love with the created order than he was with God. Merely having a sense of wonder and delight in creation did not help Balaam. He still assisted the wicked king in enticing Israel to sin, and earned himself eternal condemnation in the pages of Scripture. We should delight in creation and wonder at God and His universe, but we should also understand how deep sin runs, how desperately we need atonement, and how much we have to look forward to in the re-creation of the world. This whole view of the Gospel is the only way to correct our modernist tendencies, recover our lost sense of wonder, develop good theology through conversation, and grow in the community of the church. When Donkeys Talk offers a partial-but-skewed correction to our problems, and in doing so ends up being much less useful than it could have been.

In sum, I'd say this is certainly not the worst book you could pick up, but it's not the best either. I'm not completely convinced that it's weaknesses outweigh its strengths- though I am convinced that you'd be better served to read older Christian critiques of modernity (those by Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Kuyper, or J. Gresham Machen, for example). And I suspect that so far as I am saying that you should be reading older books than his, Mr. Blanski would agree.

This book was provided for free by the publisher on the condition that I review it. I was not required to write a positive review.

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