October 18, 2017

Writers’ Roundtable Discussion Of Robert Capon’s Between Noon And Three

Editor’s note: Before you read this discussion of Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, I urge you to read, or re-read, Michael Spencer’s essay titled Our Problem With Grace. Michael and I talked often about how Christians struggle with the concept of receiving our salvation freely from God, totally apart from anything we can do to earn it. This one idea is perhaps the greatest struggle of the Christian life. So read Michael’s essay, then come back and read about a book Michael said will help many into the freedom of grace.

Robert Farrar Capon is 85 years old, still living in his beloved New York City where he served as an Episcopal priest until 1977, when he left the ministry to write full time. In addition to the religious topics he explored, he was also a renowned food critic, writing food columns for both The New York Times and Newsday. He explored in great detail the various parables told by Jesus, showing that they are not for our moral instruction, but simply to help us identify God the loving Father in each.

Michael Spencer recommended the book we are discussing today to me, but with this warning: “Be careful who you let see you reading it. You will be branded a heretic. This is a dangerous book.” As soon as he said that, I had to have it, being the rebel that I am. And he was right. It is a dangerous book. Other than Scripture itself, I have never read a book that has so challenged me as Between Noon And Three. So I invited some of our writers to share their thoughts on it as well. Because of some other obligations, difficulty in obtaining the book, etc., we are limited to only three writers this time. Lisa Dye, Damaris Zehner, and Joe Spann. Joe was going to bring some homemade peanut butter brownies, but ended up bringing a packet of dipe-wipes and a pacifier instead. Seems he and his wife just gave birth to their fourth child, a boy. So we brewed up some extra-strong coffee and gave Joe the entire pot. Lisa and Damaris said they would be willing to share their apple slices and roasted pumpkin seeds, so all was well.

Jeff: Let’s cut right to the chase. Capon paints a twelve-chapter picture of an affair between a college professor and one of his adult students to portray how grace works in our lives. Appropriate or inappropriate? Does this parable do what he intends it to do? Is there a reason he shocks us like this?

Damaris: It looks as if I’m going to be the tone-deaf person at the symphony. Most of this book left me cold. It could be my fault — there may be something I’m not getting. Perhaps I’m one of the hung-up people that Capon was writing about. But to answer your question.

The story of Paul and Laura didn’t work for me at all. First, it was too developed to have the concise punch of a parable, but not developed enough to have the interest of a novel. I didn’t find it shocking. The conversation was a bit precious, and the love scenes, frankly, were ho-hum.

There were several thematic problems about the book, too, which I might as well address here. First, it felt dated. Its delight in naughtiness was all too reminiscent of Andrew Greeley and other “liberated” authors of the Seventies who said loudly and in all contexts that sex is all right with God and I‘m pretty hip for saying so.

Second, the narrative voice was grating. Capon talked as much about what he was going to say as he did about his subject at hand. That too is a dated literary style. I wondered if Capon, by distancing us and himself from the story by his commentary, wasn’t doing the same thing Paul did — hiding behind a clever persona instead of just showing us who he is.

Joe: I have a tendency to shy away from the terms “appropriate” or “inappropriate” as regards art or teaching illustrations.  They are umbrella terms that are largely unhelpful in conveying nuance.  I do have critiques about certain aspects of the first parable.  I tend to agree with Damaris that a parable is more effective with less character development.  Knowing that much about the internal life of Paul was distracting to the main punch line of the parable.  Capon explicates the parable more fully toward the very end of the book which helped me see some reason in the descriptions of Paul’s internal conflict.  If I could have known that earlier I think I would have been less distracted through the rest of the book. Layering that much meaning into a story without being able to tell it in a couple paragraphs or less takes it out of the realm of parable for me.

I understand Capon’s reason for trying to shock us with the content of the parable.  He was trying to scare our internal moral policemen out of hiding.  I don’t disagree with this strategy.  I think this strategy combined with Capon’s style, which is sometimes so clever as to be cute, can cross the line into being a little off-putting.  Shock value is a tremendous and powerful tool.  In the hands of the mature artist, with the proper level of sobriety regarding the revelation being conveyed, it can bring people to their knees.  If handled with too much smirk, it becomes an episode of South Park.  Obviously, Capon doesn’t go that far, but I do think that his ability to turn a phrase sometimes tripped up the gravitas he intended to lend his subject matter.

Jeff: Flannery O’Connor said, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Perhaps Capon figured his audience was almost blind to the reality of grace.  Lisa?

Lisa: If grace is limitless and without any strings attached other than receiving it, as Capon contends, then using an adulterous affair as a parable serves two purposes that I can see.

First, it utilizes a blatant defiance of God’s law as an example of what his limitless creative ability and power can completely and unquestioningly remedy by the Cross of Christ.

Second, by demonstrating Laura’s ‘grace’ of loving Paul despite her knowledge that he is a habitual player, Capon distills a big and inscrutable idea into one small act and allows us to see grace as a snapshot. It’s not a perfect parable, but it’s helpful. As to whether it’s appropriate, I imagine that for some this is offensive.

I receive it as a help and learn that grace is not really grace if it can’t cover even the most common sins of man, no matter how they offend. Although we are not capable of extending the same generosity because we are weak and human and spiteful, we have a God who is the fountain of infinite love and grace. We may not understand it completely, but we can revel in it.

Jeff: Capon seems to make morality the enemy of grace. He seems to be saying that once we experience the forgiveness of Christ that “anything goes.” Seems to say that. Is that really what he is trying to get across?

Damaris: Probably not, but he’s certainly at the very far edge of the allowable pendulum swing. I happened to be reading Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, at the same time I was reading Between Noon and Three. I was struck by John Paul’s point that the grace of Christ’s calling is what enables us to follow Christian morality, and Christian morality is the necessary path of response to grace: “Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality.” This seems to me a more balanced presentation of grace and morality than Capon’s.

Jeff: Capon talks toward the end of the book about “Christian ethics.” I think this can also be called “Christian morality.” He says,

Ethics tells you what you ought and ought not to do in order to be recognizably and acceptably human. Christianity tells you about a God who takes unrecognizable and unacceptable human beings and re-cognizes and accepts them in Jesus, whether or not they happen to have done what they ought to have done.

To me, this him saying, Morality is a part of the human way of life, the life that no matter what, we can’t get right.

Lisa: I think he is saying that morality is only the enemy of grace in that we diminish what grace accomplishes by clinging stubbornly to our morality. If we think we have a shred of morality, then we can’t accept the infinitely wide and deep and high grace that swallows every sin. We come before God, not as spiritual paupers, but as those with some moral assets (we think). That is a lie. Because of our sin nature, we are utterly degenerate.

A good example is the rich, young ruler. He came to Christ asking what he needed to do to gain eternal life. He fully expected to hear the first part of Jesus’ answer: obey God’s commandments. He was a man clinging to his good behavior and thought he would be commended. When Jesus told him to get rid of everything he valued, give it to the poor and follow him, he walked away sad. Giving away his wealth was a metaphor for stripping himself in a spiritual sense and becoming a pauper before God. People addicted to their own goodness have the toughest time understanding and receiving grace.

Jeff: Your essay comparing the rich, young ruler with King David was an eye-opener. I had never seen it that way before.

Lisa: Thank you.

Joe: I took from the book that moral life is a result of life abundantly lived.  But it is grace that first resurrects us into that life.  Morality as a seed produces some nasty fruit, morality as the fruit of the seed of grace is sweet indeed.  Capon makes it clear that he knows that he is overstating on the side of grace and neglecting the side of morality.  He states that his reason for this is that we (the church) have spent so long leaning to the side of morality.  I agree with Capon here.

The job of the church is clearly to state the Gospel of Christ, which is the good news of his grace.  We have instead tended to take new “converts” and turned immediately to cleaning them up so they can look and act like us.  It is a gospel of sin avoidance which resurrects nobody.  This is the sole resounding point of Capon’s book.  It is an attempt to be a counter-balance to this mistake in the church.  This is not Dallas Willard teaching us how to walk into the abundant life of Christ through the various disciplines.  He isn’t attempting that.  If we criticize Capon because he leaves out the importance of the disciplines and doesn’t pay homage to the moral instruction and character development that are part of the resurrected Christian life, then we could just as easily complain that staples like Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is overly legalistic and focuses too much on works.

Jeff: Another emphasis throughout Between Noon And Three for Capon is the fact that we are dead, now, in our trespasses and sins. And that Jesus is only interested in resurrection, not in us trying to become better people. This is perhaps best articulated in chapter 16. Why does this make us feel so uncomfortable? Is it because we want a better role to play than the corpse?

Damaris: This didn’t make me uncomfortable at all. I thought it was the best point in the whole book. Another great writer about grace—Father Stephen Freeman, on his blog “Glory to God for All Things”—said it this way: “Christ did not come to make bad men good but to make dead men live.” This is profoundly true. Our problem is not that we are beset by lots of sins that need to get straightened out; our problem is that we are dead and stinking, like Lazarus, and need to hear the voice calling us from the grave.

Jeff: That reminds me of one of my favorite lines in Capon’s book:

Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

Lisa: Honestly, I’m not exactly sure why this makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because the louder voices screaming in our ears do want us to become better people. Our churches, our cultures, our families and we ourselves don’t accept grace and resurrection. We must become the version of good that screams the loudest.

Capon tells us that God has closed the salt mine where we’ve been slaving and tells us our services are no longer required. We are free. Then he asks the question, “What would you do with freedom if you had it?” He goes on to say, “You are free. What do you plan to do?” I haven’t come up with an answer yet. The idea stuns me.

Joe: This was one of the more enlightening parts of the book for me.  It did help me to recognize a certain amount of spiritual pride in myself.  I do harbor some secret chamber of my belief where all Christians earn merit badges and where I am at least further than the next guy in the race toward being an Eagle Scout.  Christ has done everything necessary; I don’t even get sweat equity.

Jeff: Did you like the format of part two of the book, The Coffee Hour? Capon presents questions that we might all be asking and then answers them best he can. Did his answers help clarify what he is trying to say about grace?

Joe: Entertaining and at times mind-bending.  I would have liked to participate in an actual Coffee Hour.

Jeff: How about if for now I just pour you another cup of coffee?

Damaris: In general I preferred his direct points to the allegorical presentations. His answers clarified what he was trying to say about grace, but I don’t think they’re the last word on grace at all.

Lisa: I do like this part of the book. Capon poses some questions I didn’t think of myself. I appreciate his teaching on why Jesus purposely healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.

He was introducing a radical idea to the Pharisees– that he was Lord of the Sabbath — and he knew that his demonstration of the teaching had to fly in the face of everything they’d always believed. If he conformed, even in the slightest way, to their expectations, they would cling to that bit of their preconception and miss his point. They were looking for a victorious political Messiah and he had come to suffer and die. It was only his death and resurrection that would save them, but it’s not what they wanted or expected. He purposely meant to outrage them to put an end to the thinking that he had come to conform to their ideas of what Messiah would do.

I also liked Capon’s teaching on the Pharisee and Publican of Luke 18.

Jeff: That is an incredible explanation of that parable. In one of his sermons, Capon expounds on this parable in detail. He says,

Like all of Jesus’ parables, it should carry a warning which is “this will be hazardous to all your previous opinions about how religion works and how God works.” Jesus’ parables are designed to outrage the hearers and to shock and to show how God has stood almost all of our values on their heads…The point is that this parable is about death and resurrection. It is not about morality, spirituality or anything else. It is about the fact that both the Pharisee and the Publican (the tax collector), are dead ducks. The Pharisee is a very high class kind of dead duck, but they are both dead as far as being able to reconcile with God is concerned. The point about all of this is that the reconciliation God has in mind for them is totally dependent on their death…Jesus came to raise the dead — meaning by deadness, you in your deadness, the Pharisee in his deadness and the tax collector in his deadness.

Again we have the idea that grace only comes by our death and Jesus raising us to life.

Part three, The Youngest Day, brings us another shocking parable: The death of mob hit man Vito. Again the question: Does this parable really need to be as shocking to the reader as it is? Does it portray grace as Capon intends?

Joe: In my opinion this story, while not perfect as parable, did a much better job at sticking to the genre and not accidentally becoming a full-fledged short story.

Lisa: Once again, using what seems most unforgivable to demonstrate the limitlessness of God’s grace is effective. Capon asks us to imagine that every evil in history — whether it be Vito’s death at the hands of the mob, Hitler’s atrocities, Paul’s adultery with Laura or you and I putting nails into the feet and hands of Christ — every evil, though never ceasing to be evil, is reconciled in God’s kingdom by Christ’s death.

Jeff: Capon makes a big deal out of Vito’s hold on his life and Jesus’ hold on it. He makes it sound as if one can still choose forgiveness of sin after one is dead. What do you make of that?

Lisa:  I don’t think Capon says we can choose forgiveness after we’re dead. Toward the end of the book he says there is only one sin we can commit against grace, only one dangerous thing we can ever do — and that is to refuse to believe it. If he was saying that we can choose forgiveness after we’re dead, then there is effectively no sin. If that was the case, who wouldn’t, upon seeing impending judgment, choose forgiveness? Capon clearly tells us there something that can’t be forgiven in eternity. That unforgivable thing is refusing to believe that God’s grace is ours in Jesus Christ.

Jeff: Joe, you look like you might have a different thought on this.

Joe: I have no problem with what Capon is saying in theory.  The only basis I see for a doctrine that bodily death seals the deal is the nature of eternity.  In a world without time, where there is no moment after or before this one, will it be possible to change one’s mind regarding anything?  I think the reason that most of us hold that belief is to keep from offending our own sense of justice.  We assume that after death there will be no need for faith and that all will be so clear that only a fool would still choose death and hell.  There is no scriptural basis for this assumption.  In fact, faith is something that remains along with hope and love.  It seems that we may still be in need of it in eternity.

Jeff: On page 257 Capon says, “…no one comes to judgment with his times in his own hands; everyone who is drawn to Christ whether now or on the last day, comes with his loser’s grip on his own life broken, absolved by death. And that means, quite astonishingly, that Christ judges us only as he holds us, not as we hold ourselves. And since he holds us reconciled (“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus”), it means that the judgment is, in some vast and fundamental sense, rigged in our favor. In the youngest day, we will all be completely acceptable.”  Sounds very close to universalism to me. Anyone want to defend Capon against the charge of universalism?

Lisa:  If we are asking if Capon believes in a universal reconciliation between God and man, then I think he is saying God intended it, desired it and made it possible in sending Christ to swallow sin with his death. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

If we are asking if Capon believes that universal reconciliation between God and man occurs in actuality, then I think he believes many are foolish enough to reject the grace that secures their reconciliation. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Being in Christ hinges on our acceptance of his gift of grace and some won’t accept it.

Joe: While I may not agree with every aspect of Capon’s portrayal of heaven and hell, I do not think he is guilty of espousing universalism.  Even in Capon’s view, we still must confront and choose the cross of Christ.  If we do not recognize and surrender to our own death, we will spend eternity chained to our own corpse as an act of our own free will.  This isn’t far from the picture that C.S. Lewis paints in The Great Divorce.  Anyone who uses Capon’s book as an excuse to adopt universalism or moral depravity is probably resourceful enough to find that justification in just about any place they look.

Damaris: Joe is referring in The Great Divorce to where Lewis is talking to George MacDonald on the threshold of heaven:

“In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”

“Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”

“Because they are too terrible, Sir?”

“No. Because all answers deceive.”

Jeff: Perfect. That book never ceases to undo what I think I have finally grasped. The same with Capon.

Michael Spencer told me this was a life-changing but very dangerous book to read. Now that you have waded through it, do you agree with Michael? How would you recommend this book to others?

Damaris: Yes, it’s dangerous. I believe it’s life-changing to some. I don’t think I’d recommend it, although I have no problems with others enjoying it and getting more out of it than I did. Certainly I would recommend it be read in balance with other works, by other authors, from other ages.

Lisa: I can think of a few people I would recommend the book too, but otherwise most I know would have trouble with it. As much as we like to talk about grace, we really don’t see it and believe it in all its fullness. Mostly, we come to God with as many moral assets as we can muster and hope grace will cover the rest.

In our dealings with other people, we usually only deal a backward grace. If we meet someone who used to be caught in sin, but has since experienced a deliverance, we marvel at the strength and beauty of God’s grace, but we hardly believe it is for the person who is currently caught.

The danger comes when we quit playing the game everyone wants us to play. When we realize we are “in a love affair with an unlosable lover”, the performing stops and our observers complain. Perhaps they are jealous of the intimacy they see between the Savior and his saved ones. Perhaps they know they have lost the power they once had to pull the strings of others. Perhaps they fear the wild potential that freedom brings.

Whatever the reasons, some will view grace as a scandal and persecute those who gratefully receive what they themselves cannot believe and are too afraid to accept.

Joe: I can recommend this to some others, but not all others. But then there are few books or authors that would achieve the “all others” rank to me. To me, a book is not simply good or bad.

Jeff: Explain what you mean.

Joe: If someone seriously describes a person as only good or bad, then it means they most likely don’t really know that person. Similarly, a book has complexity that evades a yes or no, good or bad evaluation. Inevitably, all books have some element of truth that may be constructive for some but not for others. And some books need more distilling to glean out the nourishing parts. There, I’m done.

Jeff: And so are we. Joe, go get some rest—until the next feeding and changing is due, that is. Lisa and Damaris, thank you as always for your wisdom and—dare I say it?—grace you bring to the Writers’ Roundtable. Coming up in October from the Writers: Is Halloween the most Christian of all holidays?

Comments

  1. Kenny Johnson says:

    This is what I wrote previously:

    I couldn’t make it through the Capon book. I tried. It was recommended here and I got about 1/3rd of the way through, but it was so tedious and boring I couldn’t muster the strength to pick it up anymore. I’m someone who can read a reference book for pleasure, but the Capon book killed me.

    But I’m very particular about fiction writing. I have a short attention span and if nothing has happened of interest in the first 60-70 pages (as it didn’t in this case), then I lose interest. I’m also sensitive to writing styles — and I found Capon (at least in this case) to be almost unbearable. I’m fairly well-read, yet he still used a bunch of big words that I would have to look up if I cared enough.

    I’ll just have to take your word for the scandalous grace presented. I’m sure it’s awesome.

  2. “(B)y demonstrating Laura’s ‘grace’ of loving Paul despite her knowledge that he is a habitual player”

    Okay, so is the portrayal of Paul meant to be Israel/us = the adulterous wife and Laura is God/the faithful husband who continues to love us?

    And if Paul is already married, is that analogous to what Donne says in one of his Holy Sonnets, No. 74 “Batter my heart”:

    “Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
    But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
    Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe”

    We are ‘married’ to – I dunno? the Lord of this world? our own fallenness? and the scandal of grace is the same scandal as love in adultery, that by yearning for God we are ‘deceiving’ our ‘betrothed’, the gods of Egypt?

    Haven’t read the book, probably not likely to, and only going by what this discussion mentions, but that’s the only interpretation that makes any sense to me.

    • Martha, you are on the right track. We are wedded to our sin–the attraction of it on one hand, and do not want to break free from it because it is what we know, it is the custom, it is what we are comfortable with. Or perhaps we suffer from the “abused spouse” syndrome: Yes, we know it is wrong, but it is our fault, it won’t happen again, etc.

      Christ comes as our lover to woo us away from our “spouse” in this world. I think Capon would go with your analogy just fine.

      It reminds me of what a friend said to me once: “Jeff, following Jesus is a lot less like getting all of the answers on your test right, and a lot more like having a wild affair with the teacher.”

      Capon would definitely like that!

  3. Alec Macleod says:

    Read the book, loved it. Read it again, loved it more. Love the guy for his courage. As for literary criticism, yawn – sorry, but love his writing too. It’s ‘laugh out loud’. His books are a treasure and his thinking is brilliant. As for his message concerning the gospel of grace, I dig it. PS. Loved the way Michael wrote it up, too.

  4. Sorry I did not get to participate at the table on this one.

    Jeff asked, “Is there a reason he shocks us like this?” Yes, to underline the point that, likewise, Jesus’ parables were shocking to the people of his day. We read them in our context and mostly aren’t offended, because we don’t share the cultural and religious assumptions of those who first heard them. If we read Jesus’ parables with first century religious Jewish sensibilities, we’d be more than offended. We’d want to crucify him!

    The parable of the prodigal son is a good example. We read it today and get all sentimental over the younger brother, and teary-eyed when we see the father running to welcome him home. But that parable was meant to be a shocker—it challenged every assumption and practice of religious and moral Judaism. The Pharisees would have been appalled and incensed at those characters and what they did. The only one who would have been acting in any “appropriate” way in their eyes was the elder brother. The father was a soft-hearted, weak fool and the younger son an outrageous, immoral rebel bringing nothing but shame on the family and worthy of nothing but excommunication at the least. If we could read it through first century Jewish eyes, the parable of the prodigal son would offend our sensibilities at least as much as the more modern stories Capon tells.

    Jesus was deliberately provocative. Capon is trying to do the same. Sometimes we need a slap in the face to get our attention.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The parable of the prodigal son does something I’ve done on occasion — take a standard setup, tell it completely straight until you get to the end, then give the punch line a one-eighty twist and watch the baseball bats go right up side the readers’/listeners’ heads.

  5. I’m about 20 pages from finishing. I think it’s a good read, though the part about the affair just wasn’t very good storytelling, or at least I didn’t connect well with it. There’s an aside in this part that captured my attention, though. He describes moralism as a pretty good system for keeping people who don’t gamble from losing their shirts at the track. And I pondered this for awhile and… it led to all sorts of connections. I think reading Capon one has to read a small section and then spend some time digesting it. I’m wondering, does he fit the moral code back into Christian belief at the end?

  6. Joe described Capon’s writing style in this book as “sometimes so clever as to be cute, can cross the line into being a little off-putting.” I agree with that. His “cuteness” distracted from the message, in my opinion.

    And Damaris writes, “Second, the narrative voice was grating. Capon talked as much about what he was going to say as he did about his subject at hand. That too is a dated literary style. I wondered if Capon, by distancing us and himself from the story by his commentary, wasn’t doing the same thing Paul did — hiding behind a clever persona instead of just showing us who he is.”

    I agree with that, too.

    I am sure this book will be great for many people, but there are other books I would recommend before this one to help people with their understanding of grace.

    Ususally Michael Spencer and I agreed on the books that we find to be great, but on this one, I did not like it anywhere near as much as he did.

    • I am sure this book will be great for many people, but there are other books I would recommend before this one to help people with their understanding of grace.

      Galations and Ephesians come to mind. 😀

    • Joanie,

      Would you mind mentioning which books you would recommend? I am in need of that help with understanding! Thanks!

      • Susan, here are some thoughts. (I don’t want to hijack this post, though, so if Jeff or Chaplain Mike wants to send this by email to you and delete my comment, that’s OK with me.)

        The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen.
        I have not read this book, but only excerpts from it in a book of various writings of Nouwen. But I am fairly certain it will be an excellent book about grace, having seen the Amazon preview of the first pages and having seen this book mentioned by a number of people as being a “must read” book. And I love Nouwen’s other writings.

        Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. I enjoyed this book years ago and gave it to someone else to read and never got it back! The editorial at Amazon writes, “Grace is defined as ‘the freely given and unmerited favor and love of God.’ But, as Manning points out, we have ‘twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper.’ In reality, God offers us grace immeasurable. Brennan Manning gently encourages us to embrace that grace in the face of our greatest needs. And Manning certainly knows whereof he speaks, having taken a journey from priesthood and academic achievement through a collapse into alcoholism. Manning came face to face with his need, finally abandoning himself to grace. And he invites us now to join him in a life of grace.”

        Life Lessons from the Monastery: Wisdom on Love, Prayer, Calling, and Commitment by Jerome Kodell. This one is not specifically about just grace. But grace is a part of it and it’s such a quick read from this abbott about what he has learned from decades of being a monk and helping other people to discover the love and grace of God. I actually am thinking that this would be a good book to buy like a hundred copies of and ask that it be given to anyone attending my funeral! (Any that are left can be just around town, like the post office, the laudromat, etc.)

        I know Michael Patten from the Parchment and Pen blog loves The Grace Awakening by Charles R. Swindoll and it probably is great, but I started it and didn’t get around to finishing it, having other books I wanted to read before that one. But other folks can chime in as to whether this was be recommended too.

        I know one of C. S. Lewis’ books would be great, but can’t remember off-hand which would be the best. Someone else may know.

        I know there are THOUSANDS of books written about grace, so this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Have fun!

        • Joanie D. has our permission to hijack this blog from time to time, mostly because she says nice things about us that we don’t deserve. Hmmm…grace in action.

          There are many books dealing with grace. You may find one easier to absorb and apply than others. Start with Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. If you can’t handle that, you definitely shouldn’t attempt Capon.

          • Awww, thanks, Jeff! But you deserve the nice things I say about you in a child-of-God deserving kind of way. Jesus and his disciples encouraged people…be not afraid…keep running the race…hold onto the faith you first had. We hear so many discouraging things in our daily life. Think how better things could be if we just made a point to only encourage one another! I say this as much to myself as to anyone. It’s too easy for me to point out others’ errors to them, justifying it to myself that I am “helping” them. They don’t usually feel helped! There is such a balance to learn in life and I am only beginning to learn.

            Jerr, thanks for all that you, Chaplain Mike, and your regular contributing writers do for us on this site!

          • Thank you, Joanie, for the recommendations. And thank you, Jeff, for allowing them.

        • Nouwen’ Return of the Prodigal is certainly good. He gets us to see ourselves in each of the characters of the parable.

          Brennan Manning deals wonderfully with grace in all of his books. I think my favorite is Abba’s Child., though The Signature of Jesus would be a close second.

          Tom

      • Susan, Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing about Grace?” is another good one.

  7. I read most of the adultery parable before the book was due back at the library. A friend of mine once said that the best writing is that which makes you forget about the author. Not sure if that is always true, but I kept remembering that line as I was continuously distracted by Capon’s insistence upon interrupting the parable to talk to the reader.

    I love the idea of radical grace, but this book took too long getting there.

    • Kenny Johnson says:

      Sounds like we had a similar experience. I struggled to read the first 60-70 pages and finally gave up.

      • I absolutely love Capon’s book on the parables. Kingdom, Grace Judgment. I suspect some will get more out of that one. For me, his message about the outrage of Grace was made even more powerfully in that book.

  8. Lisa: “People addicted to their own goodness have the toughest time understanding and receiving grace.”
    I agree witht this and see how churches inadvertently (hopefully) feed this addiction. I also think we can struggle with how addicted we can be to believing that the “baddest” parts of us make grace impossibly too good to be true so we need to compensate by building on our extremely fragile elements of goodness.

  9. In essence the story of Paul and Laura was parable, although expanded into a novella. It would be like taking the parable of the shrewd manager – Luke 16 – and expanding into a short story, with many added details.

  10. We had a preacher back in my early teen years who could paint the most elaborate pictures of a sinful life. Honestly, I could imagine him telling Paul and Laura’s story in similar detail, possibly even adding a few more visits to the motel, just to keep the congregation awake. Of course, the ending would be radically different. Laura would be on her knees begging for God’s mercy, while Paul would be standing in the flames of hell.

    I don’t know if such sermons are preached anymore. If not, this book may seem dated. To me it reminded me of a story I might have heard preached from a pulpit back then, but turned on its head because the message was grace, not the vengeance of God.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Of course, the ending would be radically different. Laura would be on her knees begging for God’s mercy, while Paul would be standing in the flames of hell.

      Op cit Chaplain Mike’s comments on The Prodigal Son.
      Your preacher told the standard story.
      Both Jesus and Capon took the standard buildup and turned the punch line completely around.

  11. Capon’s point about the outrage of Grace hit me more subversively in Between Noon And Three.

    Neither Laura or Paul are sympathetic characters. Particularly Paul, a total cad. I suspect this is one reason readers have trouble with the book. It is harder to stick with unsympathetic characters – unless they are set up to finally “get what they deserve”.

    Laura’s unconditional acceptance of Paul is meant to illuminate grace, unmerited, outrageous. While reading I kept thinking, …not necessarily. Maybe she is so in love, she simply lacks good judgment. Maybe she wants a lover so desperately, she simply doesn’t care. Being human she really could have a selfish motive for such behavior.

    Then, another thought. There really is no human relationship or experience that can possibly demonstrate a full understanding of grace. Sure, we see hints of grace in various situations, sacrifice, generosity, forgiveness. Yet the fullness of God’s grace, I think that must be beyond our self-motivated minds to grasp. It really is the antithesis of self. It is almost too much, too astonishing, too amazing.

  12. This was a paradigm changer for me.

    The thought of Christ reconciling the world to himself, in whatever way that happens to be true, gives me much greater hope for everything than I’ve ever had before.

    And I think I died to self just a little bit more after reading this. Hopefully a lot more than I even recognize.

  13. Well I’m glad to know at least I wasn’t the only one who loved this book. Reading Capon’s book felt like being given the gift of grace for the first time, then reading this discussion felt like it was being quickly snatched away. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of anybody writing, but I did find it rather discouraging. I am also working on not being so easily discouraged though…

    I agree that if Capon wanted to have a future in writing romance novels, he has some work to do, but that was never the point and he made that clear from the very beginning. I too found neither Laura nor Paul likable at all, but I don’t really think that mattered in the end (and I liked his response to that challenge in the coffee hour section)

    At first I was distracted by Paul’s cadishness, then I kept reading and found myself identifying with him completely. His “love” of Laura was weak, narcissistic, and quite possibly temporary, but it didn’t really matter because Laura’s love was enough. I can’t say that my love for God is much different than Paul’s, and I found this story life-giving.

    I actually really liked Capon’s method of interjecting in the story, and his use of cute and snarky language. I found it entertaining and funny, Kind of like a feisty but kind man who has grown weary of being bludgeoned by well-meaning Christians and has leaned to respond to their criticism with patience, but also with resignation that most will likely still walk away thinking he’s a heretic. I found his tone endearing.

    • Marie, I think if you read the discussion again, you will find that for the most part, we all enjoyed at least parts of the book. I think Lisa and I were the most enthusiastic about Capon’s presentation of grace. And though Damaris and Joe had legitimate complaints about his literary style, they too found much they liked in his “plain prose” presentation of grace.

      And I stated that other than Scripture, this book has been the most influential in my life.

      Glad you like it too!

    • “At first I was distracted by Paul’s cadishness, then I kept reading and found myself identifying with him completely.”

      You’re right. For me it was far too easy to think I have nothing in common with this unfaithful cad. But with countless forms of idolatry, we are each Paul.

      The thought brings to mind Derek Webb’s song “Wedding Dress”

      I am so easily satisfied
      by the call of lovers so less wild

    • Marie-
      That is precisely what I mean by the fact that I would recommend it to some and not to others. I find it extremely helpful and healthy in stripping away the fig leaf of religion. The meditation that this book stirred for me was liberating in a way that called me forward into holiness. That being said, I read the book with a critical eye knowing that I would be discussing it. Had I known that my thoughts on the book would have remained private for another six months or so, it may have changed the tone of my response. It is amazing how our reason for reading a book will change its meaning to us. Certainly don’t let any of my boring critique take away from the liberation of grace that the book may have worked in you.

      • Joe & Jeff, I wasn’t actually discouraged by anything either of you wrote, don’t worry 🙂

        I think it’s just much easier to deflate newfound hope than it is to give it. Sometimes it only takes one well-phrased comment to counteract hours and hours of teaching on grace (at least that’s the way it often is for this recovering good little church girl)

        But I liked your comment here Joe and I think it makes a lot of sense. Helps me better appreciate your response to the book.

  14. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the book. The presentation of our deadness along with the One who at his own expense and initiative (Grace) gives us life was just so wonderful for me. I will definitely try to find a copy of this book to buy. I was sad to have to return it to the library. And, I will look forward to reading other works by Capon.

    His style was quite alright with me. I felt the telling of the parable of romance just had to be endured for the discussion of grace to come. With that expectation, I did not dwell on the how I felt about Paul and Laura. I thought the scene with Paul lying on the grass and coming to terms with his deadness was a great picture of recognizing my own deadness with sin. This meshed very well with what I have been ruminating about from Romans 5 and 6. So, when he went on to discuss the publican and the Pharisee, the publican’s being undone by his sinfulness / deadness led me to appreciate even more how much that typifies all of us. We are so not going to seek God or improve our disposition before him. Oh, the wonder and beauty of the grace of Jesus.
    I loved most of the book but could not really track with The Youngest Day discussion. I think he was way out on a limb there.

    Thanks for the challenge and the great round-table discussion.

  15. I’m starting the book for a second time. Really enjoyed it the first time, but I’m highly resistant to the idea of universalism, which Capon must answer to. He denies it, but it’s a tough accusation for him to shake.

    Capon insists that grace is absolute and he pushes his parable to the extreme. As Jesus did with the prodigal son parable (well, really the forgiving father parable), grace becomes a scandal. I do think that Capon’s comparison of Laura with the father in the parable, and at the same time with the fatted calf, was beyond the limit for most readers. Here we have an adulteress forgiving an adulteror for his previous adulteries. Does that speak for the father in the parable, whom Jesus apparently compares with God? What about the wife??? What about Laura’s husband??? (Or am I sounding like the older brother?)

    If we can get beyond the charge of universalism and accept that maybe Hitler really is in hell, OK. Let’s say that the book does work as an illustration of grace, if grace really is an infinite measure of God’s love. Pushing it to the extreme is therefore acceptable and even helpful. It really did make me think about the capacity of God’s grace, and for that I’m grateful.

    • Funny you should mention Hitler and hell. I was thinking about that very question this morning. What struck me was the thought that our desire for Hitler to be in hell or our insistence that Hitler must be in hell are evidence of two things: 1) what we believe about God’s ability and willingness to actually forgive sin and 2) our preference for justice over mercy for others — but never for ourselves.

    • I’m starting the book for the second time too. I think it will be helpful to read it a second time since I know where he is going now. The thing about Laura being an adultress bothered me at first too…especially the comments she makes about her husband during her coffee shop talk with Paul. She says her husband loves her without liking her and that he needs a mistress among other things. As I’ve gone back though, it occured to me that since Laura is the God figure, maybe Capon intends for her husband to represent religion or the Church (I’m thinking of the pharisees and the Older Brother here)…I don’t know…just a thought.

    • Ted,

      With some cautiousness on my part I would say that Capon is no more a “Universalist” than C.S. Lewis could be called such by what he wrote in The Great Divorce.

      T

  16. I hope you will forgive (and allow) this long comment, because I really am struggling. I see by the other posts that I am in the minority, but I was left with such a feeling of despair after reading this book! At first, I had difficulty with Capon’s writing style, which I thought distracted from the message. But after giving BNAT a second read and taking copious notes, I believe my problem is not with the message of grace (at least I don’t think it is) but with the lack of context.

    Capon admits that he picks and chooses the biblical images and Scriptures that suit his purposes, which I find disturbing in a priest, and he insists on working only the sunny side of the street. Yes, he does say that when the dark side has been worked so long, the sunny side needs extra attention in order to achieve a balance, but the problem, for me, is that he never does achieve that balance. He spends part two responding to objections from his audience, but he argues from his position on the sunny side. He does not use his own method of reasoning put forth in part three—to take the more difficult Scripture reading first, make sense of that, then watch the easier reading fall into place. In part one, he argues the easier reading using verses that support his sunny-side view, while ignoring or dismissing the more difficult reading. When confronted with any of the harder verses, he says things like, “let it pass.” Or, to explain away the more difficult passages in Romans 6, he says only that Paul slips away from grace but rouses himself in the end. He acknowledges the paradox of the Gospel, but says he’ll deal with the inconsistencies another day.

    If Capon can’t, or won’t, put justification in context with sanctification and glorification—if he can’t, or won’t, support his position from both sides of the street—how can I even begin to understand grace?

    On page 118, Capon says: “I am fully aware that the Scriptures are paradoxical—that God speaks with a forked tongue—and that every lovely thing he says on the side of leniency can be matched by a dozen stringencies that will curl your hair. But I am also convinced that each of us has to make a decision about such utterances. When someone tells you many different things about his attitude toward you, you must first look at him long and long, and decide for yourself whether you care about him at all. But if you finally come to the conclusion that you do care, you must then decide which of his words you will take as his governing word.”

    So…is Capon saying that, in confronting any difficult passage or seemingly contradictory statement in the Bible, we can simply make a decision to forget it in favor of a part we like better? What he says about our relationship with other humans is true—when we care about them, we have to decide what we will focus on, the good or the bad. But does this same reasoning apply to God? Do we not have to know Him as a whole—His justice, wrath, and holiness in addition to his love, faithfulness, and mercy? Can we make a decision to forget the attributes we fear or don’t understand (the dozen stringencies) in favor of His grace alone (the lovely thing He says on the side of leniency)? How can Capon say (page 120) that God’s “Word goes” and still say we are free to decide which aspects of His Word we choose to forget about? If His Word goes, then don’t we have to reconcile all of it—the stringent and the lenient?

    Capon’s method of interpretation bothers me, but what upsets me is his portrait of God. On page 194, he says: “We don’t know why God created—for all we know, he could have made a mistake.” And on page 197: “So what if God made a mistake? If the Someone who set up the world so that evil is possible is willing to commit suicide over his mistake rather than blame you for it, then trusting such a person doesn’t seem like an altogether bad idea.”

    If God really is like Capon portrays Him—Someone capable of making mistakes and powerless to stop Himself from making them; Someone who, after creating a world in which evil is possible, shrugs and says, “Oops, sorry, I made a mistake”—then I despair that I don’t know God at all. And what does such a portrait say about me, His created one? Was I a mistake? If that’s even remotely possible, then how can I believe God loves me enough to justify, sanctify, and glorify me? Am I simply to cast my lot with this kind of Someone, not because I love Him, but because His eternity is simply the lesser of two horrors, so to speak? Either I choose to relive my reconciled past over and over and over again for all eternity or I choose…not to. That’s it? That’s all there is? That’s the end result of grace?

    Lastly, Capon’s repeated substitution of the word “mistake” for “sin” and his notion that everything moves toward God by its own desire for The Highest Good through self-knowledge and self-love… These ideas sound too much like A Course in Miracles philosophy for my comfort. Does Scripture support these claims? Is our perversion of free will and knowledge really a desire for THE Highest Good, or is it really a rebellion against God’s will for OUR OWN Highest Good?

    I have other concerns, but I will stop here. Thank you for listening and considering my questions.

    • Susan, you have written a very well thought-out post with very legitimate concerns about Capon’s book. Some of what you mentioned bothered me as well. His speaking of the creation of the universe as a “mistake” for one. The use of the word “mistake” in place of “sin” always bothers me as well.

      But as for his cherry-picking scriptures to make his point, I will not rise to Capon’s–or God’s–defense. Capon sets out to make a point: Grace prevails over all common sense, over all logic, over all theology that would contradict such grace. It is such a scary, overarching grace that many want to repel it with logic, theology, etc.

      I am not going to defend Capon. And I will not even attempt to defend God on the charges that he would offer total freedom without some strings attached. Your concerns are very real. Unfortunately, God doesn’t make this easy for us. I can make Capon’s case. I can make your case against Capon. I’m just not smart enough to know which is right. So I choose to believe–perhaps naively, but at least sincerely–that God really does offer me total freedom in what he has already done. That I am dead in my sins, and so is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. That through his death my dead self is made alive.

      I cannot reconcile all of it–again, I am really not that sharp–so I simply receive it by faith.

      Susan, your concerns are good and well thought-out. I am rambling in my response. Perhaps someone else can offer better. For me, I will side with the scandalous grace presented by Capon and take my chances. Sorry I can’t offer better.

      • Jeff, thank you for your kind response. Perhaps the reconciliation of both sides of the street is not possible. Or perhaps Capon’s method of working only one side of the street is simply not for me. I look forward to reading some of the other books suggested here. I also found the Introspective Cogitations article through the Trackback link below to be helpful.

        • Susan makes excellent points here. And Ted did above too. I would have to do a re-read to decide if I think Capon belives in universalism. I was unsure, reading the book. I am a “hopeful Christian univeralist” myself. That means I hope all will be united with and in God but I can’t be sure that will happen. It’s that balance of justice and mercy thing. We always think of Hitler and think we don’t want him in heaven. But God made Hitler too and perhaps even Hitler should somehow have our prayers for his eternal soul. Perhaps he will suffer all the sufferings he ever caused people and in the end even his evil will be destroyed leaving nothing but that which can live with God. I don’t know. God’s ways are not my ways. He is more merciful, thank God.

  17. When I first read the ‘Phantastes,’ I was entranced by it. So much so that I was shocked to see criticisms of its style and literary art. But then when I looked back at it more impartially, I found that it was indeed a bit lacking from a technical point of view. It was the vision, not the style, that I had enjoyed; and I enjoyed it enough that stylistic flaws did not bother me.

    Perhaps something similar has happened here. I read the criticisms of Capon’s style with a sort of shock; I found it to be excellent! And I found his discursions fascinating, and his eye for detail captivating; I enjoyed listening to the words of his thoughts dance and play about with the reader. It may be an ‘outdated’ style, true, but I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. The Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, the Bible are all written in far more ‘outdated’ styles and suffer no such criticisms.

    But, looking back….I can see some validity to this all. Capon perhaps tries to do too many things at once with his parable. He does each of these things, I think, very well; but, just as if you try to tell a comedy and a tragedy at the same time they will tend to cancel each other out no matter how well you tell them, so here his various aims may be somewhat at odds with each other, and so they all become less than the sum of their parts.

    Ah, well. This is not a writer’s workshop blog, and I should not treat it as such. Let me cast about momentarily for a theological note to leave on.

    Here are two. First, I think that we should not be criticizing Capon so much for not having a balanced view on morality and grace. The picture painted in this book is deliberately crooked, for he knew that we hang all pictures on our walls more crookedly still. He searches for a semblance of straightness through exaggeration, and readily admits it. Search for balanced, systematic theology elsewhere.
    Second, I loved how Capon confronts the reader with their own perfect freedom. I had never heard of grace spoken of in such a way before.

  18. Capon has single handedly changed the way I read and study the bible, as soon as I finished his trilogy on the parables.I went out and bought every book he wrote, I can’t get enough of him and he’s brought a breath of fresh air to our community, its awesome to see his books getting out there and discussed and hopefully will get more discovered for everyone