There are precious few books that elicit tears; even fewer books of theology. Walker Percy echoed T.S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” in saying that the modern person ”cannot think and feel at the same time.” Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace, named for the period of darkness just before Christ’s death, comes as close as any contemporary book I’ve read to proving Percy wrong. Robert Farrar Capon, that masterful connoisseur of grace, weaves together thinking and feeling, storytelling and theology, in what he described as “a watershed experience… the most important piece of writing I have ever done.” At the same time, and with characteristic humility, Capon said that “if you can stand the switching back and forth [between story and theology], it makes for a diverting experience.” The contrast in these quotes is perfect; the book itself oscillates between flippant playfulness and unapologetic passion, and Capon never takes himself too seriously, but is utterly devoted to the love of God to which he pays tribute.
The plot is zany, to be sure: an already-adulterous English teacher (‘Paul’) starts a new affair, with a woman who loves him totally and is fully committed to him. There is no immediate repercussion in his life, none of the moral fallout we usually demand in our stories. It’s good, right, and for Paul, almost salvific. If this move seems strange, even subversive, for a Christian author to make, then you’re not alone. In Dr. Capon’s words: “It took 10 years, 25 rejections and 7 revisions before it got published.”
Here we must pause and appreciate Father Capon’s biblical talent. His interpretation is distinctly modern, and that in a distinctly pastoral way. He does not merely gloss the text, because he knows that it is impossible to read a text without preconceptions, emotional biases, and misconceptions getting in the way. For Capon, that means that he must not only interpret theology, but he must simultaneously strip the reader of her/his biases. That is, he knows that whenever we read the Bible, it is first and foremost the Old Adam doing all the exegetical heavy-lifting. Legalism isn’t some problem in this denomination or that one, but instead lies at the core of our inveterate identity as sinners, and it’s the (dour) lens most natural to us as readers. So his work is an ongoing dialogue with a reader who, he correctly assumes, will tend toward legalism in apprehension. That is, they will hear conditionality (and the corresponding sense of “ought”) in the word of grace. To see the Bible, or theology, or listen to a sermon, without the old biases toward law is a struggle, a process, and something never fully accomplished. Concerning sermons:
As I said, when I preach something [purely grace-focused], I get two reactions. At the end of the sermon, I see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to the doctrine of grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of their worst shipwrecks they are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls them. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light.
But after the sermon, in the time it takes to get downstairs to coffee hour, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Their fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for morality.
I propose, therefore, that you and I stop our progress at this point and do justice to the frowning, coffee-hour mood that my parable of grace has put you in.
Capon’s book is conversational–thesis, our reaction against it, his response, etc. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”, the main character takes off her glasses at the end–it’s the only hope O’Connor will allow for, under the sun at least. Capon wants to take off our glasses and stomp them underfoot, which is why his book (as with many honest looks at grace) has generated such pushback over the years. But he can’t address a problem of seeing with theology–as if our resistance to grace comes from some intellectual defect!–but instead he wants to speak at several different levels, speak to the full person of the reader. And so this book vacillates among short fiction, literary analysis, poetry quotes, commentary on Augustine, and theology. It’s dialectical in the best sense, twisting and turning back on itself, addressing the heart and then the head and then the imagination, as it builds, slowly, from human experience all the way up to the Atonement and the Resurrection and eschatology.
All this means that Between Noon and Three is difficult to review; reading it is less a theology manual or reference book than it is a slow, tortuous, and ultimately ec-static midwifing into the unthinkable economy of grace. A book to be experienced as much as comprehended. It is, like the best of Christian theology, an act not of knowledge or ideas but of vision–and a beautiful vision at that. Seeing is an act first of seeing our selves, and second (simultaneously) of seeing God. First, ourselves:
We are dead and our lives are hid with Christ in God. Dead. Out of the causal nexus for good. Dead. Not on trial. Dead. Out of the judicial process altogether. Not indicted, not prosecuted, not bound over, not found guilty. Just dead. And the lovely thing of it is that we were dead even before they came to get us. We have beaten the system. In Christ, we have cheated the cosmos and slipped the bonds of every necessity the Old Party will ever wave in front of us. There is therefore now no condemnation. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t even matter what God think, because he has said he isn’t going to think about it anymore. All he thinks now is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; and Jesus now is all your life. You are, therefore, free…
Again, despite the beauty of his language here, it’s impossible to recapitulate the back-and-forth, the wit and humor and at times abruptness, of the book. But the resurrection.. what about that? For Capon, “You can’t redress an imbalance without putting more weight on the light side, at least for the time being. And that’s all I propose to ask my reader to do…”
So is Capon just writing about grace because we live in a legalistic time or Church or society, similar to the way some theologians are (temporarily) calling God exclusively feminine pronouns to purge us of our over-identification with God as male? Well, no. Because the scale will always be tipped toward legalism and control and self-justification, weighted as it is by our perpetual burdensome self-absorption, the Old Adam resurging time and again, urging self-sufficiency and extending the illusory shadow of control over all circumstances–even spiritual–in his life. So Capon is sitting, absurdly, on the light side of the scale. The side which, since sin is self-justification, catapults him up like a kid trying in vain to balance the see-saw, alone and ridiculous-looking, to many Christians at least.
What of Resurrection then? In the world of Between Noon and Three, me being “saved” makes little sense, because that’s assuming there’s a me that can “be” anything. His interpretation of “hidden in Christ” (Col) is so high that it’s doubtful if we can lay claim to anything in ourselves, much less salvation. But we share in Christ’s salvation, less a something given to us than a condition perpetually, yet still irrevocably, received.
And so the Resurrection is a reality, but death is the fact of life, the most empirically observable things about human (and, yes, ‘Christian’) existence. I’m reminded of Gerhard Forde’s insistence that Christ wasn’t playing some theological game with the Father when he died, with a calculation of Anselmian atonement and knowledge he was taking a three-day hiatus; it was death, plain and simple. The same is true for us: Christian Wiman once said that Christianity is about the eradication of the self. Dr. Capon would say that it’s an assent to the fact that we have no self, except perhaps the Adamic one, to begin with.
Are we going to heaven? Can we be certain? A recognizably human question, a recognizably Christian one, but not recognizably Capon, at least not straightforwardly–the emphasis, and especially the tense, are off. It is in our acknowledgement of the death of our ethics, our Christian ‘progress’, our ‘spiritual maturity’–there (and there alone) is the touchstone of grace, as it was for Christ on the cross. This touchstone of our lived experience of grace is a good place to close:
If we are now in Christ, we are now in that new creation. Unless what we believe is a lie, it is just that simple, and the proof is as easy as the yoke of Christ. For if we are now dead with him, we are also now risen with him; and if we are now judged by him, we are also reconciled in him. And therefore if heaven is the fullness of that reconciliation, it is that now, and we’re in it already. The only important sense in which we are not in it is the least important sense of all; and the only catch to it turns out to be not a catch but the ultimate liberation: our apprehension of heaven face-to-face waits only for the easiest, most inevitable thing of all – our literal, physical death. That alone has yet to become true; everything else is true already. Therefore, we are as good as home now. Q.E.D.
Given his high views on atonement and reconciliation, the Christian life is not about becoming virtuous, or doing some thing or another, or learning theology but about apprehending, as much as we’re given to, these things which are true now, the New Order against which we still struggle with every fiber in us. This apprehension could be called variously vision, contemplation, faith – even though “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face-to-face.” Polishing the mirror, patiently and stubbornly and ever so slightly, is Capon’s gift to those led by him into “the grace that takes the world between noon and three.”