Palmer Lecture 2015 Synopsis


Photo by Zac Davis.  Article by Megan Wildhood.

Since 1978, the Palmer Lecture series has sought "to bring the best minds and hearts in Wesleyan theology and biblical studies to campus to discuss the Christian faith from a Wesleyan perspective.”  This year’s lecturer, Dr. Stephen Fowl is SPU’s scholar in residence for the academic year.  He is on sabbatical loan from Loyola University in Maryland, where he is a professor of theology and was chair of academic senate.  His work has included developing a method of bible study called theological interpretation.  His monograph, Engaging Scripture (1998), came out when most bible scholars were not studying the Bible as Scripture but as a literary text.  Dr. Fowl’s work on reading Scripture theologically – as text with the power to form a community of believers as such – has since taken hold. 

This year’s Palmer Lecture is entitled, How to Eat Until We are Full:  Idolatry and Ways to Avoid It.  Much of Scripture’s reflection on idolatry is in the prophets, Dr. Fowl says.  When a prophet comes on the scene, things are already in a pretty bad way.  Unless we are vastly different than our forefathers, then we too can be blinded by our other-than-god pursuits and unwilling to confess to our waywardness.

So this talk tonight will not be a prophetic denouncement but a self-evident truth.  “No one wakes up one day and decides to worship a false god.”  Idolatry is a gradual state that happen in a series of small, incremental movements, comprises, and seemingly benign turnings away from God that are rarely total in and of themselves; they often still allow us to keep God in view – in our peripheral vision.  Of course, this is not the wholehearted devotion God seeks.  It’s not always going to be clear when these tiny turnings formally turn into idolatry.  Given that God seeks our full devotion, it may not become important to find that line.  Rather than have a prophet call you to repent from things you can barely recognize in yourself, it’s better to locate and uproot patterns in your own self before they fully take hold. 

Dr. Fowl brings us to Deuteronomy 6:10-15.  There are many grammatical and logical complexities attending the idea that the Lord is one.  One meaning Dr. Fowl suggests for the phrase is the Lord should be wholeheartedly loved.  From Song of Songs, it’s best to understand God’s desire for love as a lover would – there is only one for him, only one worth his attention, no matter how many others may exist.  “If YHWH is one in the sense of one and only, then Israel must be wholeheartedly devoted to YHWH” (R.W. Moberly).  Deuteronomy 6 is interested in helping Israel find and practice such worship.  The key is sustained and systematic attention to the words in Deuteronomy 6:6-9, reciting them to the next generation, discussing them, placing them on private and public structures, etc.  Maintaining wholehearted commitment to God requires concrete and public action.  Tangible actions that express Israel’s single-minded devotion demonstrate engagement with the material world; they all serve to remind Israel where their attention must always lie.

There are a number of practices to rightly remember love for God in right working order in Deuteronomy 6:6-9.  Jewish scholars have devoted quite a lot of energy to these texts.  Christians have not done as much but we have developed a few: regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, wearing or making the sign of the cross, Scriptural texts carved into buildings and churches.  While there’s more to explore here, Dr. Fowl cautions us to remember that these should not replace allegiance to God.  If they are to serve their purposes, they must serve and be anchored in catechetical purposes; otherwise, they could become free-floating symbols that lose their force in helping the faithful. 

Dr. Fowl uses British Roman Catholic theologian Dr. Ronald Nash’s illustration of walking around in a brown robe with a rope tied around the middle.  In the 13th century, this particular garment symbolizes that you are one of the poor; in the 20th century, this most likely means you are amicably eccentric.  The point is that context matters.  Dr. Fowl gives another example, perhaps a bit closer to home: Crosses are popular pieces of jewelry; they can be used to market other things (including Christianity) in capitalism.  To demonstrate his point, Dr. Fowl shows a poster that says, “Of course, people with pierced body parts are welcome at our church” with Jesus on the cross behind the text.  This, Dr. Fowl says, is a great example of a bait and switch.  This is why these symbols need to be rooted repeatedly. 

The dangers of forgetting God are both tied to eating one’s fill and idolatry.  Deuteronomy 6:10-15 warns of Israel’s movement away from God that will manifest in idolatry.  Deuteronomy 6, 8, 10, and 31 all assert the link between eating one’s fill and forgetting the Lord.  Deuteronomy 8: 10-20 spells out a connection between eating one’s fill and forgetting the Lord.  The warning in 8:14 is that, after taking the bounty of the land, Israel might exalt themselves and forget the Lord.  It would appear that eating one’s fill and forgetting God is due to forgetting one’s dependence.  Eating one’s fill gives a false sense of self-containment.

Nehemiah 9:26 serves to prove that eating one’s fill does not necessarily lead to idolatry; it recounts events anticipated in passages like Deuteronomy 6.  Having eaten their fill and becoming fat, Israel actually delighted itself in God’s goodness.  In Nehemiah, the Israelites experienced the bounty of the Promised Land, ate their fill and blessed the Lord for His goodness.  Alas, they were still disobedient but the connection is not causal.  Delighting oneself in God’s great goodness should not have caused Israel to abandon the one and only God, but it did.  Eating one’s fill does not inevitably lead to one’s fill; it remains a troubling tendency, but eating one’s fill is not in and of itself the problem.  Rather it presents us with a choice.

So how do we eat our fill and bless the Lord?  First, Dr. Fowl suggests that we need to resist a culture that won’t take full for an answer – we need to learn to develop skills that recognize when enough is enough.  This late capitalistic culture is aptly summarized in an advertisement for the Washington State Fair: A man is trying to eat a burger roughly the size of his head and the ad states that “Washington won’t take full for an answer.”  How we develop skills to recognize “enough” and stop at that depends on the questions we ask at the outset.  If the questions concern only the bare minimum needed for survival, we can get by with the basic needs of a house plant and indeed people get by with not even that much.  Material needs would be covered but social needs would not.  Instead of questions about mere essentials, Christians with more than enough should ask: “What is enough for me to occupy with dignity the place God called me?”  This may lead to other questions; pursuing this line of questioning cannot be done alone but must be within a community.

In a culture that won’t take full for an answer, the lives of believers want to delight in God’s goodness when eating their fill should be marked with

1)      Temperance with regard to consumption. 

Dr. Fowl cites David McCarthy and points out that temperance should not be confused with abstinence.  The former is closer to self-control (which is not self-denial), which aims to enhance rather than limit our engagement with things because the self, not the thing, is controlled.  “Temperance is the virtue of putting human good at the center of the enjoyment of things.”

2)      Modesty with regard to their possessions. 

Again, Dr. Fowl references David McCarthy and explains that modesty is good only insofar as it makes us dependent on gifts, as in, when it is closely tied to generosity and hospitality.

3)      The knowledge of how to cultivate deep and generous relationships. 

Dr. Fowl elaborates that we are disconnected from our food and goods.  Many of our goods are specifically designed to keep us from working on them/repairing them rather than preserving them.  The more we isolate people from people and things, the harder it will be to keep from idolatry or from eating our fill.  The more alienated we are from our things and people and places, the more likely we are to think that the things we use and eat are the results of our own purchasing power.  To the extent that we believe our goods are dispensable, it’s hard to imagine this won’t impact our worship and fidelity, not to mention the damage it does to God’s creation.  Believers need to attend to the results, impacts and outcomes of our own eating and that of our neighbors. 

Thus, Dr. Fowl says, consumption patterns and conversations about the use of wealth cannot remain private matters.  He acknowledges that these are very difficult issues and suggests that it may be better to start learning how to think about and argue about wealth by practicing hospitality and generosity with the people God puts in your way. 

These are not the only ways to approach dealing with idolatry and none of this guarantees our protection from it.  Dr. Fowl closes by landing on a central symbolic practice of the Christian faith.  The first and natural context for Christians to eat our fill and delight in God’s goodness is through attentive participation in Eucharist.  Where better than this invitation to full participation in God’s story?

Click here for Part 2: Q&A Session

To view the lecture on YouTube, click here.

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Palmer Lecture 2015

Dr. Stephen Fowl, visiting theologian in residence at Seattle Pacific Seminary and University, will be giving the 2015 Alfred S. Palmer Lecture on January 22, 2015: “How to Eat Till We Are Full: Idolatry and Ways to Avoid It.”  For more information, click here.


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