One of the striking features of Thomas Oden’s spiritual life is his expansive intellectual appetite, evidenced in both his reading and his writing. From his early liberal passion for radical theological and political literature to his later development of the notion of paleo-orthodoxy, Oden clearly loved to read good books which challenged him to think and to write thoughtful books that built on this foundation. Indeed, Oden’s move to paleo-orthodoxy and evangelicalism did not disrupt this love for reading good theologians who stand outside the evangelical canon. Instead, it simply expanded his interests. To the greats of modern theology he now added the greats of the premodern past, using these latter as the primary lens for assessing the former. Som early heroes even maintained that status after the break with modernism: Kierkegaard, the gloomy wit of Copenhagen, has remained for Oden a constant source of pleasure and theological stimulation.
The church as a whole has become the beneficiary of Oden's love for patristic authors. On my bookshelves I have volumes from his Ancient Christian Commentary series, his various ancient devotionals, and the magnificent Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity. Yet Oden's love for classic orthodoxy required more than just a shift in taste. It rested upon a culture of reading and writing that is today under threat.
Oden's move to paleo-orthodoxy was the result of him becoming convinced by his experience as professor and pastor that modern questions were best solved with ancient solutions. Human nature is the same as it always was. While he does not put it in such terms in A Change of Heart, we might say that sex, money and power remain the basic temptations, and theologians with a grasp of the holiness of God and the power of his grace in Christ are surely the best people to address these issues. Oden found such theologians primarily among the fathers of the early church.
The turn to orthodoxy, however, rested upon more than just a change in intellectualconviction. It arose out of a kind of reading which is itself a relic of a bygone age, where thoughts worth thinking all required more than 140 characters to express. Reading patristics, reading the medievals, reading the Reformers and (most certainly) reading Kierkegaard requires effort. The fact that these works have stood the test of time is itself evidence of the substantial nature of their contribution and thus of the effort that is necessary to grasp the profundity and intricacy of their content.
The attention deficit disorder which is the new normal in our world is antithetical to the culture which Oden represents. One cannot have his classical theology without having his approach to reading the classical sources. But it is not only the world of knowledge-by- Wikipedia and argument-by-twitter which has served to sideline the deep writers and careful thinkers. The economics of today’s evangelicalism militate against this kind of thoughtful reading and thus against the paleo-orthodoxy which assumes such. It costs big money to keep Big Eva on the road. That depends not upon the retrieval of the best of the tradition but upon the constant reinvention of the market; and market reinvention requires a prioritizing of the new and the novel, whether in form, content, or both. The consequent culture inevitably comes to prize innovation and aesthetics, not tradition and routine.
Thus, new products are presented as superior solutions to old problems. The most obvious example of this would be the use of popular brand name pastors and authors to write books outside of their field of competence, and even to write substantially the same book on numerous occasions. The problem may well have been addressed more than adequately in the past, but pushing the recent potboiler of a popular writer is always a better way to make money in the present. In today's evangelical marketplace, competence would seem to be more a function of brand recognition than intrinsic merit.
Then there is the development of new, specialized topics or problems whose alleged novelty justifies the marketing of new solutions. Biblical masculinity, child-rearing, and marriage are all topics on which the Bible speaks. Yet the ather minimal and simple provisions which the Bible provides on these have been somehow transformed into an economically significant section of the publishing and conference industries. Some seem to have built impressive personal empires by opining on such topics. To these we may add bizarre new niches in the marketplace, such as the recently discovered need for unmetrical meanderings as a means of articulating domestic spirituality. One man’s occasion for crying ‘Come quickly, Lord Jesus!’ is clearly another man’s opportunity for marketing moonshine.
The result of all this is that more people end up reading fluff, thinking that such fluff represents thoughtful Christianity, and thus failing to engage deeply with the classic authors and significant texts of the Christian tradition. That is a grim phenomenon when it is fostered and promoted by leaders. This is where Oden is such a great example of an alternative vision for the church. He read widely, he read deeply, and he wrote thoughtfully. And once again he made me nostalgic for a world where the people writing the important books in the present were those reading the important books of the past.