the astonished heart

a review

by Robert Brow   (web site -

(Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History, Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.)

 If you need a book for spring cleaning your denomination and giving apoplexy to the big noises, you couldn't do better. It would also suit as a birthday present to brighten the ponderous style of a historian. And if you thought the Christian faith was a religion to be defended, you need a dose of Capon's astonishment.

 I loved these one liners about the Reformation: "The only people available to run it were, every last one of them, late mediaevalists." And "Every church of the Reformation era (the Roman Church not excepted) fell in love with the idea of confecting long-winded confessions of faith." As an Anglican I have "the giant waffle of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion." You others had better find out where you belong.

 This is vintage Capon with an opinionated romp through all the models of Church History, including all those you ever heard of like the Country Club, Cursillo, Charismatic, Therapeutic, and AA models, and very new ones like the Internet Model (Ouch! Is that me?) - "a kind of floating, conversational crap-game that lets anyone in its whole universe play" (Catholicity A+ till the control freaks get to control it). But celebrating the Eucharist on the Net? Receiving Communion on the Net? Capon thinks not.

 I found it very helpful to think of the Old Testament Church first as living under its Exodus model, then by its monarchy model, and from the exile with the community-of-the-text model. Each model, as with all the later Christendom ones, is graded as religion (bad), institution (bad), and for catholicity (good). Catholicity means that the good news is free and for all without exception. There is no room for "a transactional agency through which God deigns to reward the cooperative" and excludes the unacceptable. The Church's current preoccupation with sexual offences rates an F.

 So in the dismal procession of models Christendom has become a religion, a religious institution, the societal religious institution, a collection of societal religions institutions, and finally in our day a free-for all of competing Christian religions each with its own corporate structure. It nearly put me off model theology for good.

 But I was certainly glad to replace the usual models of the right, center, and left by an elegant model of preferred altitude. Conservatives like me at sea level, the liberals sitting on the mountain peaks, and the rest enjoying the uplands in between. I will leave you to read how the shoe fits in each case. You might guess where this belongs: "Philosophical house-wrecking to replace theological home-building as the principal joy of academe." Or preachers who give "Helpful hints about self-improvement in everything from morality, to spirituality, to health, to family life, to peace of mind."

 The neat part of the analysis is that all of these are now found in all franchises of the Church, but the bad news is that none of them are any fun at all. "Watching us conservatives is about as much fun as watching cement harden." Ouch! "Watching us middle-grounders is less fun than waiting for a can of worms to make up its mind."

 The moral is that when the Church wants to be a religion among others it has to emphasize creed, cult, and conduct. But all that is needed is for us to be a pointer to the astonishment of the good news of free and unconditional forgiveness. It is "unqualified grace" based on the fact that there is nothing to pay because Christ has paid it all.

 Capon does recognize the Holy Spirit presiding over the historical process of the Church and our Bible. It is done "mysteriously, not ham-fistedly." But to my mind what is missing is that by faith we not only believe we are forgiven, but we also receive the agency of the Holy Spirit doing in us all the much more astonishing things that Capon's Astonished Heart hardly notices.

 P.S. Someone told me to go read Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. To my astonishment there wasn't a single reference to the Holy Spirit in the index. That's what Romans is all about, and the Church.

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