Review of Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live?: A Catholic Baptist Engagement With Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008. 318 pages.

David Dault
Christian Brothers University

At the close of the 1990s, Emory professor Walter Lowe suggested that, in Barth’s 1919 Commentary on Romans, “Christianity has had a postmodernism of its own.” [1] Lowe characterized this Pauline postmodernism as distinct from, but by no means allergic to, its secular twentieth-century counterpart. Lowe places the locus of this Christian postmodern turn firmly in apocalyptic, and sees his reading of Paul’s apocalyptic theology as an antidote to “modernity’s self-understanding” of unified narrative and individualism.

Lowe is certainly neither the first nor the last to entertain such notions. Indeed, if we consider solely the disciples of John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas, the question of how Christianity, qua religious faith writ large, should best engage and critique the modern project has been a preoccupation of an entire cottage industry of theological writers for the last three decades. Expanding our scope to include the breadth of Abrahamic thinkers, we can find a clear line in this set of questions to Franz Rosenzweig and the German Lehrhaus movement of the early twentieth century, and through this lineage back to our own present-day attempts to practice Scriptural Reasoning together.

With his book, Can These Bones Live?, Barry Harvey leaps into this strange maelstrom of voices. This formidable and well-written book functions, not so much as an argument, but as a meditation which focuses on the questions of faith and modernity. Notably, however, Harvey shows much less patience with the postmodern than Lowe or the latter-day disciples of Rosenzweig in SR. For Harvey, a “postmodern” Christian can only be a contradiction in terms, a product of a mistake in thinking that confuses a heavenly and apocalyptic goal for an earthly and political one: “The difference has to do with how women and men come to terms with the inextricable and inescapable sense of contingency, particularly and mystery that circumscribes not only the whole of human existence but also our attempt to deal with it,” Harvey writes late in the book. “Simply put, those who embrace this way of naming the world [and thus undermine the modern project in the name of “the postmodern”] seek to transform the nothingness into yet another proper place, while those who seek to prop up the modern project continue in a state of self-deception.” [2]

Christians, according to Harvey, should agree to neither of these options. Each of the options are, in their own way, a misguided “attempt to identify a convincing replacement for God in the narrative progress of history.” [3] In other words, both those who would hold onto modernity at all costs and those who seek to abandon it at all costs do so in the name of the “promise and possibility of a new and more perfect Christendom,” [4] a hubris that, for Harvey, infects both the present form of the Catholic Church and its Protestant counterparts. The result is a fractured landscape of church-like structures that long for the “good ol’ days” of Constantinianism, even as “the so-called mainline churches that once dominated the American social landscape have been pushed to the periphery of a culture of aimless production and narcissistic consumption, where they continue to make periodic pronouncements, as if they still enjoyed a monopoly in American religious life, while at the same time constantly adapting themselves to a world they still think they control.” [5] The self-delusion has led the church(es) down a path of accommodation, and Harvey’s characterization of the path is so fully realized that it deserves to be quoted at some length:

In our time…the sacramental sinews that bind the members of Christ’s ecclesial body together have largely been supplanted by the institutions and practices regulating the transactions of a state-centered, market-driven society. Comfortable in the well-worn ruts of conspicuous consumption, comparatively few Christians see their faith as anything other than a private, inward matter that makes their lives more fulfilling. They have been trained to regard the church as another vendor of goods and services, providing for their spiritual consumption and enjoyment, and thus are incapable of mounting a serious challenge to the sway of the global market’s cult of productivity and consumption. For the most part the church has acquiesced in this matter, relegating “spiritual” questions to a realm beyond the everyday world where goods are bought and sold, rewards and punishments are meted out, and the young are raised and the elderly cared for, and in the process it has supplied religious justification for the global republic of production and consumption. Ecclesial practices have been reformatted to underwrite the individual in the role of consumer, encouraging each to choose from a vast inventory of religious symbols and doctrines, to select those that best express his or her private tastes and sentiments. Some like white bread while others prefer whole wheat; some like the majesty of the Orthodox liturgy, while others are partial to the informality of Baptist services; some are drawn to the orderliness of the Reformed tradition, others the ecstasy of Pentecostal revivals; some prefer the wide range of spiritual goods and services offered by the suburban megachurch, yet others the eclectic mixture of ancient and postmodern in the so called emerging church. [6]

The language is exquisite, and the meaning is clear. The varieties of Christian faith available to the contemporary worshipper are fully “of this world,” and reflect the comforts and preferences of economic superstructures rather than the will of God. Harvey is certainly not the first to make this claim of “consumerist” Christianity, but the poetry with which he makes his case throughout is stunning. From the first pages of the first chapter, the problem that Christian believers face is startlingly clear.

Harvey’s suggested “solution” to this dilemma resembles a Hauerwasian one and remains unclear—which leads to the most frustrating aspect of his book. I believe Harvey’s proposal amounts to the following: 1) imagine a different world; 2) take the eucharist regularly; and 3) under no circumstances engage in political action. If the church has become irrelevant, in other words, the proper counteroffensive is not to try to win the relevance battle in (post)modernity’s playing field, but rather to imaginatively live into another game entirely.

After Harvey’s articulate characterization of the Christian dilemma, his suggestions for navigating the problem sounded remarkably like quietism and capitulation. Citing Augustine, Harvey suggests that “good uses may be found for professions not typically associated with Christian ministry. Bankers, for example, could use their skills and positions to help low-income families rise above subsistence levels, which in turn would allow them to contribute to the common good.” [7] Why not, I wonder, work to eliminate the system under which the usury that pays the banker’s salary is allowed? Harvey’s response is that this sort of political solution would be “part of a social order that humans enact for themselves” and, thus, prey to the will to dominate, the libido dominandi. [8] Rather, for Harvey, the true “alternative…takes form around Christ’s table [and] undercuts the monopoly that exchange ordered by the lust for mastery holds in the present age.” [9] This alternative, Harvey goes on to claim, “will need to be formed according to a different faith, a different hope, and a different love” [10] than the world currently understands, even in the (present) church.

This alternative reality is formed through a process Harvey calls “scriptural reasoning.” His use of the term, however, is somewhat different from that of the practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning who frequent the pages of this journal. For Harvey, this reasoning is the active imagination of the Christian believer, informed by biblical prophecy and story, speaking an alternate truth in the face of the present age. Fannie Lou Hamer, naming the Jim Crow South as Pharaoh, exemplifies “scriptural reasoning.” How? Because she testifies to “the apocalyptic incursion of God into human history, between her own time and circumstances, and those of the children of Israel in bondage three millennia ago.” [11]

Like the form of SR practiced by the readers of this journal, Harvey’s scriptural reasoning “cannot be acquired apart from participation in a community that has learned over countless generations how to reason about their world using biblical images and stories.” [12] However, “[this] ‘world of scripture’ is not a clearly demarcated territory to be occupied, an esoteric code to be deciphered, a set of facts to be systematically arranged, or an alternative to life in the ‘real’ world, but a historical world of action and encounter, the meaning of which is discovered and recovered in analogous patterns in our own time and circumstances.” [13] It is here that Harvey comes closest to the tenuous and provisional practice that constitutes SR, gesturing toward the possibility we glimpse when reading together across traditions. It is unfortunate that no explicit connection is made in the text to SR practices beyond these gestures.

I remain deeply divided about Harvey’s book. On the one hand, it is an undeniable achievement. There is a problem dwelling at the root of Christian life in the era of late capitalism, and Barry Harvey identifies it and interrogates it with vigor. On the other hand, I am unable to see how a Christian response can possibly avoid being political; the political option is simply not one that Harvey offers. This dilemma runs deeper than Harvey’s work, of course, and speaks to difficulties stemming back to John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and the followers of Stanley Hauerwas’ work. That Harvey is unable to think beyond the limits of Hauerwas and Yoder on this point, in the form of concrete and revolutionary action, is perhaps forgivable in light of the strength of his articulation of the problems of Christian modernity.


[1] Lowe, W. J. (1999), “Prospects for a Postmodern Christian Theology: Apocalyptic Without Reserve.” Modern Theology, 15:17-24.
[2] Harvey, p. 284-285.
[3] Harvey, p. 39.
[4] Harvey, p. 39.
[5] Harvey, p. 41.
[6] Harvey, p. 218.
[7] Harvey, p. 281.
[8] Harvey, p. 281.
[9] Harvey, p. 281.
[10] Harvey, p. 286.
[11] Harvey, p. 152.
[12] Harvey, p. 152.
[13] Harvey, p. 160, echoing Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), p. 30.