Flights of Fancy over a Pedal Note of Grace: Robert Farrar Capon

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) wrote 20 of the most quirky and colourful theology books, of which I’ve read almost half.  His writing is a flamboyant flamenco, a flavoursome stew of Scripture and Christology, food and fun – he was both an Episcopal priest and a food critic.  His rollicking romance with words and the Word makes me chuckle, or scratch my head, or sometimes chokes me up.

Grace in Christ

More than anyone, Capon has opened my eyes to God’s unconditional acceptance of us.  As one reviewer wrote, “Capon executes flights of fancy over a continuing pedal point – over the sustained bass note of grace” (FG 80).  This sums up my first favourite, the second of his gospel trilogy, The Parables of Grace (1988).

Jesus did not come to teach the teachable, reform the reformable, perfect the perfectible or improve the improvable, says Capon again and again.  He came to save the least, the last, the little and the lost; he came to raise the dead.  But it hurts our pride to admit our helplessness, to agree that our own death is the one thing needed for salvation.  Surely, we think, there must be something we can do to earn God’s approval:

If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by dint of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both. (PG 28)

The gospel, however, proclaims that “the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten”.

The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade… Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion.  (PG 100)

The human race is positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores… [but] if God has announced anything in Jesus, it is that He, for one, has pensioned off the bookkeeping department permanently.  (PG 126)

He will come to the world’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to his cross (Colossians 2:14). He will save, not some miniscule coterie of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom he… will set free in the liberation of his death.  (PG 29)

Capon notes two sequential reactions when he preaches this:

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 service, in the time it takes them to get downstairs to the 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.  (BNT 129)

Martin Luther once said you are not truly proclaiming grace until suspected of promoting sin.  Capon ran – if not relished – this risk.  To shake us out of self-justifying scorekeeping, his novella Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (1996) has a philandering English professor find unmerited love in an affair with a married student.  Steamy assignations alternate with exegesis of St Augustine, cited in Latin – by the age of 25, Capon had apparently read all his works in the original.

To show our resentment of salvation by Grace alone, Capon imagines a sequel to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: the IRD man returns to the temple the next week.  Don’t we all expect, Capon writes, a little reform to show he’d deserved God’s mercy – “no wenching this week perhaps, or drinking cheaper Scotch and giving the difference to the Heart Fund”?  We are “bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket”. (PG 178)

Lord, please restore to us the comfort of merit and demerit. Show us that there is at least something we can do. Tell us that at the end of the day there will at least be one redeeming card of our very own. Lord, if it is not too much to ask, send us to bed with a few shreds of self-respect upon which we can congratulate ourselves. But whatever you do, do not preach grace. Give us something to do, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance. (BNT)

Playful Preaching

Among the recommended texts for a preaching course in 2001, I still remember Capon’s The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (1997).  (Coincidently, my first sermon was on the foolishness of the cross in First Corinthians.)  Of course, Capon emphasises the subversive promulgation of grace:

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross – and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus.  Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion.  Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone – and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness – they will be of very little use in the pulpit. (FP 14)

Capon believes that “sermonettes make Christianettes…  topical sermons are like topical anaesthetics – they don’t go deep”.  Real preachers need to “get stark staring bonkers about the word and hilariously drunk on scripture”.  (PK 170)  Capon exemplifies the reverent playfulness I’d like to have toward scripture and preaching – and life.  As if with a sacred deck of cards, “in high seriousness and with equally high glee, we should play with Scripture.”

For me, sermon preparation brings moments of such high glee as I discover new connections in Scripture and life and am grasped by inklings of great wonder.  The ecstasy is often followed by despair – how can I ever communicate such vibrant multi-dimensional marvels in monochrome linear language?

Capon speaks to my condition with a healthy realism.  No work of art, he insists, is ever finished: there just comes a time to stop fiddling and let it go.  We don’t all have to be Shakespeare, but simply be faithful.  Although only preaching occasionally, I’ve often recalled his words when stressing out as Sunday approaches:

After all the years the church has suffered under forcible preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks.  Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week.  (PG 92)

In fact, “all Jesus needs is our emptiness”:

I hope you get thirsty enough, and dried up enough, and withered enough, and shrivelled away to nothing enough, to come at least within hailing distance of being nobody at all.  Because until you’re that, you’ll never amount to anything as a preacher …

Too many preachers are trying to make themselves lovers, when the thrill of any romance is the blinding realisation that someone else loves you … your identity is your Lover… only in dumb love will you ever be able to speak.  (FP)

Creation and Cooking

Despite the gastronomic modesty of his homiletic advice, Capon was an accomplished chef and wrote the only cook book I’ve ever read right through: The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (1967).  Here he sings his favourite tune after grace: the richness of God’s material world, the extravagantly superfluous delight of creation, the goodness of friends and food and flesh:

The world … is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have… (SL 3)

Every real thing is a joy, if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and tongue to taste it.

Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grapeskins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6 = 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2 is a dependable process because, every September, He says, ‘That was nice; do it again.’ (SL 85)

Capon despises the “devilish cult of dieting” and abhors thoughtless fast food, taking the whole book to prepare “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times”.  Before chopping an onion for sautéing, he sits down with the reader to contemplate it for a chapter.  Other sections reflect on “meat, metaphysics and metalware” – French chef’s knives and Chinese cleavers, whisks and woks – or proffer impassioned advice: gentlemen should always carry a pocketknife; “cooking with electricity is like trying to play the piano with mittens on”; and “any man who cannot tell the difference between butter and margarine has callouses on the inside of his mouth”.

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.  (SL 27)

In the final chapter (before an appendix of recipes) he turns from treating the “lesser heartburn” of tummy-rumbling indigestion to the “greater heartburn” of our longing for the wedding supper of the Lamb. This is

the higher distress for which earth has no cure – that major, vaster burning by which the heart looks out astonished at the world and, in its loving, wakes and breaks at once…

Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.  For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself – and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last.  We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.

That is the unconsolable heartburn, the lifelong disquietude of having been made in the image of God…  (SL 188-9)

I’ve decided, before I next travel overseas, I should re-read my filing cabinet of copied quotations and post some highlights.  Capon died in his New York home last month, so seems an appropriate author to remember first, and with gratitude.  When my joy in God’s grace or my delight in the “festivity of being” grows dull, a shot of Capon is often just the thing, inviting me to join him in the company of those who:

have put on the mink of righteousness, sat down in the Rolls-Royce of salvation, and are now just laughing themselves silly over the incongruous wonderfullness of it all.  (PK 146)

If I’ve whetted your appetite too, you might enjoy my second Capon post Romancing the Word and Hunting the Fox, or try the links below.  But whatever you do, don’t forget that Christ “tacks a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign over the sweatshop of religion”, so we can

Live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home. (BNT)

There is therefore now no condemnation
to them which are in Christ Jesus.

rf-capon-books-webPhoto courtesy of Joseph D’Elia