Freelance Christianity

Philosophy, Faith, and the Real World

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Vance G. Morgan
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2017.
     172 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498299138.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Freelance Christianity: Philosophy, Faith, and the Real World The book is aptly named (though “Freestyle Christianity” would have worked well), for Vance G. Morgan happily paints outside the lines and draws new lines at will, unencumbered by biblical creeds and confessions, to craft and express a faith that navigates between the “Scylla of dogmatism” and the “Charybdis of subjectivity.” 

Morgan’s book provides something of a litmus test: some readers will delight in its progressive sorties; others will lament what they perceive as another scholar who has run off the biblical rails. However, all will recognize it as an account of and exercise in soul therapy, with noted blessings from a sabbatical experience among Catholic monks in Minnesota. 

This project examines a question that has “haunted” Morgan: “How can you be a Christian and a philosopher?”In answering, he tells us what sort of Christian he has chosen to be—Episcopalian (“willing to appropriate anything from any tradition so long as it is good liturgy, fine music, or profound literature, always assuming that it will also support a liberal, left-leaning mind-set” [147]); and what sort of philosopher he is (a “pragmatic idealist,” keen on Aristotle, David Hume, and William James, but “tempered by ... faith”). 

In his analysis, Morgan deploys a hermeneutic of both palliation and gratification. His need for relief stems from his struggle “with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity” in which he was raised as the son of a Baptist preacher. It left him with a deep “spiritual malaise” and an “ennui that had been festering for years” (3-4) But, at St. John’s Abbey, he experienced an “inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the Liturgy of the Hours” (4) . This Catholic experience built on the solace he found in Episcopal practices, which had applied “spiritual balm to [his] scars” (140) . 

Seeking gratification, Morgan had embraced Anglican “worship that spoke to [his] deepest aesthetic and spiritual needs”—in “liturgy, a pipe organ, excellent music, clerical robes, a prayer book, [and the] weekly Eucharist” (140) .It is Morgan’s response to infant baptism (inimical to his Baptist doctrinal upbringing) which illustrates his readiness to accept this new belief. Though somewhat disconcerted by the priest’s declaration over a newly-baptized baby (“[t]his is the brand-newest Christian in the world” [140]), he was “struck by the obvious pleasure that the youngest girl [in the group to be baptized], dressed entirely in white, was taking in the proceedings” and “the beautiful words toward the end of the baptismal liturgy (‘[y]ou are marked as Christ’s own forever’)” (140-141). Consequently, “doctrinal issues with baptizing children dissolved into a puddle of irrelevance” (141). 

Though it is clear that Morgan writes in the poetic rather than analytic mode, treatment borders on the cavalier or careless as he construes petition and intercession as “playing the prayer game” with a “transactional god” (83); as he argues that the Spirit could transform anything (including his dachshund), into the “word of God” (Whither sola scriptura?) (148); as he speaks of the boy Jesus’s being chased out a bakery for stealing a fig;as he forwards Abraham Heschel’s statement that “God needs our help” (88);andas he observes that we, like Mary, “are the incubators of God,” entrusted “to be the divine in the world” (138). 

Though Morgan is critical of his Baptist upbringing, including the practice of Bible “sword drill” (at which he was masterful), he repeatedly demonstrates implicit gratitude for his early Scripture education, both in quoting from the Bible (with approximately 80 citations, drawn from 20 Bible books) and in tender reference to his “good Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains” (74).

Morgan’s cultural, literary, and scholarly references are wide ranging, apt and compelling—including material from Iris Murdoch, Christian Wiman, Annie Dillard, Joan Chittister, Kathleen Norris, Michel de Montaigne, Simone Weil, Rowan Williams, and Anne Lamott. Morgan explores film (City Slickers and Franco Zeferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth), theater (Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler and Aeschylus’s The Oresteia), opera (George Frideric Handel’s Serse and Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah), literature (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), and broadcast media (the Moth Radio Houron NPR and Downton Abbey on PBS). A “promiscuous reader” according to John Milton’s terms, Morgan is able to draw on the likes of John Polkinghorne, John Bunyan, Marcus Borg, Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, Albert Camus, Charles Baudelaire, Auguste Renoir, and Jacques Ellul, and Morgan borrows concepts from other religious cultures (Niyyah—“spiritual intention” in Swahili and Arabic—and the medical notion of Eastern “healing” as distinct from Western “fixing,” with appreciation for both). Furthermore, Morgan deploys some engaging images of his own, for example an analogy built around loons, jackalopes, and platypuses, and one from film—“Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get” (25).

Morgan regales with his reminiscences, ruminations, jeremiads, and celebrations as he works his way through brief, readable chapters on attentiveness, silence, grace, faith, prayer, courage, humility, beauty, and hope. The language is informal, sassy (with Jesus and his “buddies” looking like a “great laundry detergent ad” during the Transfiguration), “salty” (with a fondness for profanity and scatology, sometimes in tandem), perhaps dated (with “pie hole” for mouth, “bummed out” for dismayed, and “Big Bird moments” for epiphanies), and predictably therapeutic (with generous use of terms such as “space” [inside myself] and “centeredness”) (e.g., 27, 51, 53, 55, 73, 77, 86).

In the conclusion, we revisit the question of how a philosopher can be a Christian. Morgan outlines a way for construing and pursuing both where the fit is workable, but the reader must decide whether Morgan does justice to either. From this reviewer’s perspective, Morgan gave away (or burned down) too much of the orthodox Christian store. As for philosophy, his touch is very light—some appreciation for Gary Gutting’s apologetic, a dig at René Descartes, a quote for Søren Kierkegaard. Not much to go on, for religion is this book’s focus.  

Freelance Christianity: Philosophy, Faith, and the Real World can be an exhilarating read, or a depressing one, but for all, an intriguing one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Coppeneger is Professor ofn Christian Philosophy and Ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vance G. Morgan is professor of philosophy at Providence College. He is the author of Foundations of Cartesian Ethics (1995) and Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love (2006), as well as the blog Freelance Christianity.

Keywords: 

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