Welcome to willwillimon.com, the website of former Bishop Will Willimon. Check this site periodically for blog posts, photos, podcasts and publications. Thanks for stopping by!
Before I had finished the second chapter, I knew Incorporation was destined for my list of favorite novels of all time. What’s so great about Incorporation? First of all, there are the characters. They are at once familiar to us, and at the same time larger than life. They are at the same time outrageous and sympathetic — and they come together to form an unforgettable ensemble. Then there is the plot – this novel is a pot-boiler. You can’t put it down. Then there is Willimon’s detailed, trenchant, and incisive insight. Nothing escapes his notice. Then here is his humor. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. The novel is at once a romp, a farce, a satire, and a tragedy, but what really distinguishes this novel, and where Willimon leaves most contemporary novelists behind, is that Incorporation is deeply theological, and theological in a way that actually aligns with the gospel. It does not leave us in the quagmire, albeit the humorous quagmire, of the human predicament. It is laced with eternal verities. Finally, Incorporation tells the story of the ways of God and human redemption. Incorporation is a masterpiece.
Honestly, I am no reviewer and any review can not do this book justice. I should have savored it more. I rushed through it flipping the pages, and now the fun is over. I know. I will reread it! Thanks again for this sui generis gem. Everyone who knows me will be getting it for Christmas.
Rebecca Clancy, a professor at Elmhurst College
Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth has been published by Abingdon Press. I’m hoping that his is appropriate reading for the season of Advent, the season of the Incarnation. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
Thinking about God With Us
The Doctrine of the Incarnation, God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ, is the church’s attempt to think clearly about the great mystery that Matthew introduces as a child named, “Joshua – God saves” (Matt. 1:21), Mark depicts as a wonder-working, crucified stranger, and Luke says was conceived of the Holy Spirit impregnating a virgin named Mary.
“God is not a human being,” (Num. 23:9) is an undisputed, consistent scriptural truism. Most Americans already believe that God is eternal, immortal, invisible, omnipresent, omniscient and a stack of other high sounding, ethereal abstractions, the antithesis of everything human, or so we thought.
Until we met Jesus.
No one disputed that Jesus was not a real man. As a Jewish man, he said and did things that most humans do. Nobody doubted that Jesus had a body. He spit in the dirt. He bled and hurt like hell on the cross. After a full day on the road, he was tired and had to get away for rest and prayer. He got angry, especially with people who presumed they were tight with God. On a couple of occasions, he broke down and wept. In every way, except sin, Jesus fully shared our humanity.
But he also said and did things—forgiving sins, performing miraculous signs and wonders, authoritatively speaking for God—nobody but God can do. Jesus appeared to be so godlike, so at one with God, that he not only spoke in an easy and intimate way of God as “Father,” that quite early on, his followers spoke of him as “Son of God.”
After his resurrection, his divinity seemed self-evident to those who worshiped him and experienced his presence. Yet even in his resurrection, even in his freedom from many of the limitations that bind us, Jesus still had a kind of body, still ate breakfast with his disciples on the beach and broke bread at suppertime, still spoke to them.
Jesus was no disembodied spirit fluttering above human life. Clearly he cared about real people who were caught in real, earthly, human binds – babies to be birthed, bills to be paid, an upper room to be prepared, and children to be raised. He gathered disciples and embraced the hungry multitudes. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and invited ordinary folk to walk with him. When he noted hunger, he offered bread. When the wine ran out, he made more. Rather than providing people an escape route out of this world, he intruded into the full, tragic human condition, modeling a new way of living in this world. You can almost taste the dust as he walks along Galilee’s roads. The gospels speak of him, not in the fashion of a, “Once upon a time in a far away land,” but rather by locating him in real time like, “during the reign of Caesar Augustus,” and real places like Bethlehem and Golgotha. He not only brought a message that was addressed to real people and their real people problems, but he fully embodied that message in his life in this real world. He thereby showed us that his “kingdom” was no dreamy fantasy but a place to be lived in here and now.
In order to do something about the human problem, Jesus had to become human and had to be present in this world. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, if Jesus was God with us, God doing something decisive about the problem between us and God, then “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” (Heb. 2:17) Only a fully human Savior can save us in our full humanity and redeem all of us, who we are on Sunday n church and who we are on Monday at work, or Saturday in the dark.
At the same time, in order to do something about the human problem, Jesus was more than human. The gospel writers strain to speak of his strange human-and-more-than-human quality. An embarrassing pregnancy, inexplicable signs and wonders. Something’s afoot among us that is bigger than us.
Rather than accommodate himself or his message to the limits of his audience, Jesus intensifies the oddness. “You have heard it said, but I say to you….” (Matt. 5:38) was a favorite phrase. A Messiah who avoids the powerful and the prestigious and goes to the poor and dispossessed? A way of life that begins in death, maturity that occurs only when one turns and becomes “as a little child” (Matt. 18:3), a Savior who is rejected by many whom he sought to save, a King who reigns from a bloody cross?
Christians believe that this story, for all its strangeness, is true. Here we have a truthful account of how our God read us back into the story of God. This is a truthful depiction not only of who God really is but also of how we who were lost got found, we enslaved got redeemed, we the dead restored, we the sorrowful damned rescued by a God who refused to let our rejection and rebellion (our notorious, long-term God problem) be the final word on matters between us and God. God with us in order to be God for us.
From Duke news office to Bishop Willimon: your blog is now featured on Duke Today’s opinion page — http://today.duke.edu/opinion. The page is updated daily and, thanks to writers like you, provides a valuable glimpse of the intellectual commentary that our faculty and staff produce every day. Please tell your friends/colleagues about the Duke opinion page, as we’re trying to build an audience for the site.
This month Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth. This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church. Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
God Revealing God
My first summer of college, bumming around Europe, I sprawled with other students in the middle of the night, near Amsterdam’s Dam Square. A student whispered, “Want to see God? Take this.”
I awoke the next morning at the base of the queen’s statue with a bad headache, without a vision of God. Who doesn’t want to see God? Atheists and theists alike are able to read human history as a long search for, and often a wild fantasizing about, God. However, the atheist’s, Is there a God? is a less interesting question than the biblical, Who is the God who is there? Ninety-five percent of us already believe God is. But there are contentions among us: What does God look like? What does God expect of us?
And the most pointed question of all: Does God care about me?
It’s fine to ask big questions about us and God. Trouble is there are reasons having to do with the great gap between who God is and who we are that make it impossible for us, on our own, to give answer. How can creatures accurately conceive of their Creator? Can finite minds grasp the infinite?
Lost in the wilds of Alabama, trying to find my way to a little church, I stopped and asked a man leaning back in his chair before a rural gas station, “How do I get to Bangor?”
He scratched his chin, thought a moment, and declared, “Friend, there ain’t no way to get there from here.”
Thought about God is of the same order – no way to get to God from here. Impressive reasoning, invigorating spiritual experience, devout practices, even deeply religious upbringing, cannot enable us to ascend to God. There’s a word for a God who is accessible through our intellectual efforts – idol. An idol is a reasonable, believable, conceivable – but alas, fake — godlet we set up as substitute for the God we are unable to reach from here.
Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude ─ Incarnation. This book is the good news that we need not climb up to God; in Jesus Christ, God comes down to us. I’m using “up” and “down” here figuratively. God is inaccessible to us not only because (as we have traditionally conceived) God reigns in highest heaven and we are down here in the muck and mire of earth. God is inaccessible not only to human sight but also to human reason. Incarnation is the counter-intuitive, not-believed-by-nine-out-of-ten-Americans assertion that even though we could not avail ourselves of God, God lovingly became available. God condescended to be God with us.
In November, Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth. This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church. Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
No Image of God But From God
In the first of the Ten Commandments we were forbidden to create any image of God. Counter to much current “spirituality,” we are not free to come up with any old “god” who suits our need. In Jesus Christ, it was as if the true and living God said, “Humanity, you want a true image of me? You want the secret of who I really am and what I’m up to? Don’t attempt to make an image of me; I’ll give you a true icon – Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), no less than “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).
“Incarnation,” (from the Latin word for “in the flesh”) is the set of ideas by which Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. The Incarnation is the grand crescendo of our reflection upon the mystery that Christ is the full revelation of God; not only one who talks about God but the one who speaks for and acts as God, one who is God. Generally we do not say that God was Christ, more typical for the New Testament is the phrase “God was in Christ” (2 Corin. 5:19). Or it is said that the eternal “Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
Not that Jesus Christ ─ as the visible image of the invisible God ─ is obviously, self-evidently God. From the first, most people who encountered Jesus said not, “That Jew from Nazareth is God!” but, “That’s not the way God is supposed to look.” A word of warning: Most of us have been indoctrinated into the modern, Western conviction that we already have the ability to think clearly about anything. We have all we require innately, on our own to think clearly and truthfully about whatever we choose . Our democratic sensibilities are therefore offended by the thought that the meaning of God is a gift given to some, a phenomenon that I lack the innate skills to comprehend on my own. God must reveal the truth to us or we can’t know it.
Why isn’t Jesus Christ’s divinity more obvious?
Well, for one thing, God is God and we are not. The Old Testament teaches that it is fearful and devastating for mere mortals to gaze directly upon God, as painful as gazing upon the sun. For another thing, we have expectations for how God ought to look and act if God were worthy of our worship. From the first, Jesus failed to measure up to our expectations of God.
The Danish Christian philosopher, Sðren Kierkegaard said it would have satisfied our intellectual hankerings if God had appeared as a “very rare and tremendously large green bird” rather than as a homeless rabbi. God surprised us by appearing in human form, as a person who looked suspiciously like the annoying guy next door, an undeniably human person who hungered, thirsted, rejoiced, suffered, raged, wept, and died as all persons do.
And yet, in an astonishingly short time after his death, Jesus’ once disheartened followers began boldly telling the world that when we encounter Jesus, we encounter God. This Jew from Nazareth is as much of the true and living God as we ever hope to see. None of them said, “Jesus lives on in our memories,” or “We’ve had a meaningful religious experience; let us show you how you may have one too.” What they said was, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Father’s Eternal Word, the only begotten Son of God.”
This was a shock to nine-out-of-ten Near Easterners who assumed that God’s primary attributes were unrestrained power and undeniable glory. Not much power and glory in a crucified rabbi. But those whom the Holy Spirit pushed to greater open mindedness saw that there was more to God than they previously thought. Once reminded that the main attribute of Israel’s God is steadfast, forbearing love, Jesus as Son of God made more sense. If God is not solely power and glory, as we define those things, if God is glorious suffering, powerfully redemptive love, then it made sense that God might indeed come among us as a lowly servant who healed, taught, forgave, suffered, died and rose to bring us close to God.
How wonderfully ironic that God Almighty should turn out to be most godly precisely in God’s suffering and dying for ungrateful, wretched, erring sinners who, by our lives and actions, seemed most distant from holy, righteous God.
The Strangest Story
The only way we know the truth of this God-become-servant is through scripture, ancient stories that were told by those who were close to Jesus from the first. If we are to know the whole truth about God, we must submit to these ancient writings. The gospels at times seem a bit like biography, but they are more. In places, they sound like history, but more. They are certainly talking about events that happened at a specific time and place, but they do so in a way that often seems strange. It is a mistake to think that the gospels sound strange because they are ancient. They are strange because they attempt to describe events that really happened – God coming close to us in Jesus Christ – by events so challenging to our way of thinking that gospel talk sounds odd.
“Luke, tell us what you know to be true about Jesus Christ,” and Luke tells a story about a young woman conceiving a child out of wedlock, birthing in a cowshed, sky erupting with angelic proclamations, and, well you know the Christmas story. Surely Luke would have told us what is true about Jesus Christ in another way if a more acceptable way were adequate for conveying the facts about Christ. Indeed, Matthew, Mark, and John tell remarkably different stories about the advent of Jesus Christ, not to confuse the truth, but rather because the truth they told was both historical and transcendent. Our gospels describe so much more than mere facts can tell.
Not that the earliest accounts of Jesus are fiction. The gospels are not some sort of primitive attempt at novels. They are realistic attempts to speak about real events in which the witnesses found that their sense of themselves, of their world, and of God got decisively disrupted and rearranged. But what they have seen and heard strains their ability to tell in order to be true to the facts of the matter.
In a sermon preached in 396, Augustine ridiculed a disbelieving world that regards, “this stupendous miracle as fiction rather than fact.… They despise the human because they cannot believe it; they do not believe the divine because they cannot despise it.” Augustine went on to rhapsodize, “The one who holds the world in being lay in a manger; he was simultaneously speechless infant and the Word. The heavens cannot contain him; a woman carried him in her bosom. She was ruling our ruler,…suckling our bread.” A strange wonder evokes strange speaking.
The scriptures tell us the truth about Jesus who is in turn the truth about God. If any of us limited creatures is able to comprehend, to believe, and in believing to stake our lives upon the one who was, “The way, the truth and the life,” (Jn. 14:6) that believing is also a miraculous work of God among us. Thus we, by the grace of God, in our lives, become living testimony of the truth of Incarnation. Theologian, Karl Barth said that if you are able to believe in the strange, wondrous birth, your belief is a miracle akin to the miraculous birth of Jesus.