James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. Wipf and Stock, nd. (Previously published by Abingdon Press, 1974, 1991.)
I originally decided to read James Wm. McClendon’s minor classic Biography as Theology as a possible text for a new seminary class on theology as autobiography. In this highly regarded book, McClendon purports to develop a novel method for theology by way of personal narrative. McClendon devotes a chapter to each of the following four individuals: Dag Hammarskjöld, Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, and Charles Ives.
King, of course, needs no introduction. But that may be part of the problem: when McClendon published Biography as Theology back in 1974, there was not yet the volume of literature on the great reformer that exists today. While McClendon’s portrait touches on some key moments in King’s life — the Montgomery bus boycott, Letter from Birmingham Jail, the “I have a dream” speech, his prophetic stance on Vietnam — I found few new revelations into King’s thought here.
The situation is somewhat different with Hammarskjöld. While he achieved some fame in the years since his death in 1961, due almost completely to the posthumous publication of Markings, his star has faded significantly in the last thirty years. As a result, his life was unfamiliar to me (though I must admit to having an as-yet unread used copy of Markings somewhere in my personal library). It is perhaps for that reason that I found the portrait of this chapter to be more revelatory in understanding a man who lived out a private and deeply meditative Christian faith in the halls of political power.
The final two figures — Clarence Jordan and Charles Ives — are somewhat more obscure yet. I confess that I was not particularly moved by the great American composer, Charles Ives, not least because I chose to listen to some of his music on Spotify while I was reading the chapter and I found it to be dissonant and, frankly, irritating. Given that McClendon was ambitiously attempting to derive theological images from Ives’ music, actually listening to his oeuvre significantly diminished my appreciation for the chapter. I was also left wondering how one can possibly move from an instrumental piece to a specific theology (a point to which I shall return below).
I most enjoyed reading McClendon’s account of the life of Clarence Jordan, translator/creator of the Cotton Patch Gospel (a highly idiomatic translation of the New Testament which sets the narrative in the American south), founder of the Koinonia Farm (a racially integrated Christian commune) and a key figure in the founding of Habitat for Humanity.
I was riveted to Jordan’s story from his early years when he encountered the following appalling case of racism and hate:
“The environment taught him, he later wrote in his journal, that ‘a nigger was a nigger and must be kept in his place,’ an awareness that struck Clarence with special horror one summer night when he heard terrible groans coming from the nearby chain-gang camp, and realized that a Black prisoner he knew, Ed Russell, was being tortured in the stretcher — the stretcher being a Georgia version of the ancient rack — used in disciplining convicts. What added irony was the boy’s knowledge that the administering torturer was the same Warden McDonald who only hours earlier had been lustily singing ‘Love Lifted Me’ in the Baptist revival choir.” (91)
That was the racist environment in which Jordan grew up, a world in which a pious Baptist could sing hymns Sunday morning and torture a black prisoner Sunday evening. This makes it all the more extraordinary that Jordon resolved to found Koinonia Farm with the intent of integrating blacks and whites with a common purpose of sharing life together. As you can imagine, the locals were incensed, with the nearby Baptist church eventually disfellowshiping all the members of Koinonia from their ranks.
But that wasn’t enough. Next, all the local businesses began to boycott the farm. A reporter recounts the following exchange between Jordan and the local butane salesman who was refusing to serve the Koinonia community:
“Why haven’t you been around?” [Jordan asked a butane truck driver.]
“I can’t,” the man said. “If I do, I’ll lose all my other customers; it’ll ruin my business.”
“It looks to me like you’re on a spot,” said Jordan in his mild voice. “You’re either going to lose some money or you’re going to lose your soul.”
“I know,” the man said, “I ain’t doing right, am I?”
“I don’t think so. Winter is coming on. We got a lot of children out there on the farm, and without gas those children are going to be cold. They’ll huddle in their coats and, when they get cold, they’re going to cry. You’ll be sitting here in your nice warm office and when that old north wind begins to howl, maybe you’ll be hearing the crying of those children in the howling of the wind.”
… “My God, Mr. Jordan, I don’t know what to do. This thing has got me so messed up I got a headache. I want to keep serving you, but I’m afraid. If I do, I’m going to get my truck blown up someday.”
Jordan waited a moment…. “I feel sorry for you. All you got to do is stand up on your hind legs and act like a man. Maybe you’d lose your truck, but you’d lose your headache, too.” (97-8)
And with that kind of boldness, stoicism, and good humor, Koinonia managed to survive boycotts, cross burnings, and gunshots ringing out in the night.
Alas, this is the point where I tell you that I decided not to use Biography as Theology as a textbook. But why?
I have already noted that I had somewhat mixed responses to the chapters on King and Ives, but that’s not the reason. The real reason, to put it bluntly, is that Biography as Theology has not aged well. It was written in a time when theologians were greatly concerned to meet modernistic challenges to the method of and justification for theological discourse. And McClendon’s proposal fits neatly within that concern: his approach to theology through biographical narrative provides a way to circumvent traditional skeptical objections to theology in ordered propositions. By basing theological discourse on specific lives that lived out the Gospel, McClendon is attempting to root theology in the putative foundation of ethical experience in a way that recalls to mind all manner of other exercises in foundationalism (e.g. Kant’s ethical foundationalism; Schleiermacher’s aesthetic/subjective foundationalism).
This becomes evident at several points in the book. For example, McClendon describes seeking to pursue “theology on the basis of experience” so as to avoid the “twin threats of superstition and vacuity” (71). (Within this rubric, superstition would appear to be equivalent to benighted precritical theologizing while vacuity is what is left of theology if the critical skeptic is not answered.) Theology through individual narratives provides a way through the horns of the dilemma, a genuine means to ground and so justify theological discourse. As McClendon puts it,
“our biographical subjects have contributed to the theology of the community of sharers of their faith especially by showing how certain great archetypical images of that faith do apply to their own lives and circumstances, and by extension to our own.” (75)
In these biographies, McClendon focuses on considering what these four individuals can teach us about the doctrine of atonement, in particular: “by instantiating atonement as a central motif of their own image-governed lives, these two [Hammarskjöld and King, but also Jordan and Ives] had powerfully reinforced the viability of that doctrine for Christians in our times.” (143)
Note that all-important reference to viability. Without justifying narratives such as these, atonement is apparently not a viable doctrine for our age. And so, the viability of atonement is established in King’s emphasis on God leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land or Jordan’s movement of God which is heralded in such holistic and countercultural communities as Koinonia Farm. By considering atonement manifested in these concrete ways, we can justify and so render viable atonement discourse while sidestepping the interminable and problematic debates of traditional propositional theology over such arcana as the concept of imputation or the object of a Christic ransom, to say nothing of the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
Well-intentioned though McClendon’s effort may be, in my view it is wholly unsatisfactory. To see why, we can consider a hypothetical objector to his project. McClendon imagines this interlocutor posing the following objection:
“What you have so far shown [in these four lives] is at best related analogically to the actual Christian doctrine of atonement. The lives you have reported may indeed be inspired by the biblical concept, and that, if true, is an interesting fact about Hammarskjöld, King, Jordan, or Ives. However, it goes no distance at all to showing that the objective, biblical doctrine is true — to showing that Christ died for our sins or that in him the world is truly redeemed.” (147)
This imaginary interlocutor is on to something. While McClendon concedes in his response that there is still a place for propositional theorization in theology (p. 149), I simply don’t see that he goes any distance to answering the question that he himself posed via the interlocutor. For example, there are countless lives that have been lived in accord with many non-Christian belief systems from Gandhi (Hindu) to Izzeldin Abuelaish (Muslim) to Stephenie Meyer (Mormon) to Ayann Hirsi Ali (atheist). How, precisely, does recounting any of these lives and their fit with their beliefs itself provide a justification for those beliefs?
This leads me to the second problem. This is the problem of underdetermination which I touched on briefly above vis-a-vis the challenge of moving from Ives’ dissonant musical corpus to theological images of atonement. To be sure, McClendon believes he can overcome the gap as he writes hopefully that listening to pieces like the Fourth Symphony or 114 Songs will illustrate that “Ives’s quest for unity is of a piece with the Christian work of atonement.”(145) The problem here is that other music critics will no doubt draw completely different “declarations” for the simple reason that the music underdetermines specific theological interpretation. And it most certainly underdetermines any specific Christian doctrine of atonement.
That which is true of Ives’ music is also true of the lives of each of these individuals. While one can interpret various actions in their lives in accord with a specific understanding of atonement, one must begin with that propositionally articulated doctrine as an interpretive framework rather than having it arise organically out of the life lived.
Given that lives and actions radically underdetermine specific theological proposals, it is hardly surprising that there is very little by way of actual atonement theology in this book. To note one rather unsettling example, McClendon writes that while Jordan was an “incarnationist”, “this did not mean that his Jesus was a God-man, a masquerading deity. Rather, in the man Jesus we learn that God is not an absentee landlord.” (112)
Er, what’s that supposed to mean? I’m not sure, though the fact that Jordan’s position “might have satisfied [death of God theologian] Thomas Altizer” (112) is hardly confidence inspiring. With comments like this, McClendon shows a disturbing dismissiveness toward orthodox metaphysical accounts of incarnation: Jesus is not merely a man who was uniquely open to God’s presence in his life. Conversely, orthodox theanthropism is not “a masquerading deity”. But let’s not miss this point: if McClendon leaves us with a very low christology, this is an all-too-predictable result of a method which hobbles him at the outset from saying much more.
And that brings me to the final problem: all this hand-wringing over justification is perhaps the most dated aspect of the book. It reminds me of philosophers in the 1960s assuming that metaphysics is dead. Such concerns seem positively quaint now. Keep that in mind as we turn to McClendon’s own worry: “For a century or more, theology has agonized over the historicity fo the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel accounts, now affirming more, now less, of that portrait.” (85) McClendon’s appeal to biography aims to cope with that “agony”: “there is no hint in the religious experience of Hammarskjöld or King, that these events or teachings, or any other, must be validated by more historical research before faith can flourish.” (85) Be that as it may, today we have far better and more direct ways to deal with this so-called agony including fulsome critiques of the underlying epistemological and text-critical assumptions that drive it. (For the former, see my Theology in Search of Foundations. For the latter, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.)
I’ve been mostly negative in this review, I fear. And frankly, that isn’t quite fair, so let me end on a positive note. In some key respects, Biography as Theology was ahead of its time. Most notably, McClendon heralded the turn both to narrative and metaphor in theology which would become very significant in the 1980s. For those points alone, his book is an important step in twentieth-century theology. However, its significance lies primarily as a historical document to be read in historical context rather than as an enduring proposal with primary significance for our age.
My thanks to Wipf and Stock for generously providing me with a review copy of Biography as Theology. I remain grateful to Wipf and Stock for making important and long-out-of-print books like this available to a new generation of readers. You can purchase a copy of Biography as Theology here.