Chapter 7: Winnowing the Harvest
In Chapter 7, Marshall addresses how Christians might understand the Spirit’s role in the process of discernment. Throughout scripture we are provided with recurrent admonitions to not simply accept at face value claims related to the work of the Spirit. Paul suggests that in order to perceive the movement of the Spirit, Christians must “test everything” and “cling to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), while a writer from the Johannine community notes that not all things that appear spiritual on the surface have divine origin: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Such cautionary advice was persistent throughout ancient Christian tradition especially among monastics, who were innately suspicious of any sort of subjective “spiritual experience,” as such experiences could easily be feigned.
Reflecting a thoroughly postmodern theological perspective, Marshall notes that though “nothing in the world occurs apart from the power of God,” God is nonetheless “not the exclusive arbiter of power in the world” (p.119), offering instead the created freedom for humanity to “join the dance” of God’s divine work of renewal. This creates vast potential for ambiguity in discovering just what God might up to in the world, both in human society and in creation itself. Using the metaphor of sifting or “winnowing” the harvest to determine the movement of the Spirit and God’s will for creation, The purpose of this winnowing, says Marshall, is to “produce a great harvest of justice and peace through the lives of those empowered by the dynamic presence of God” (pg.115).
No discussion of spiritual discernment would be complete without careful analysis of spiritual gifts. Citing the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 12:7), Marshall rightly notes that our spiritual gifts do not belong to us individually, but rather exist for the benefit of us all as partners in God’s ongoing act of creation and redemption. After all, by the Spirit the Church is, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once put it, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” In her analysis of the purpose and nature of spiritual gifts, Marshall compares and contrasts Luke’s pneumatology with that of Paul. The author of Luke/Acts, she says, focuses upon spiritual gifts as the miraculous works God made manifest in humanity that further the grand mission of Christ and the apostles. Paul, meanwhile, sees the handiwork of the Spirit in some of the more mundane tasks in which Christians find ourselves engaged on a regular basis: volunteerism, charity, and even marriage (p.121). Historically, charismatics have preferred Lukan pneumatology while mainline Protestants are more comfortable with Paul. Yet Marshall argues that we should not boil these biblical perspectives down to a binary choice; instead, scripture testifies to the diversity of ways in which people of faith perceive the Spirit to be at work, and all perspectives should be considered and “tested” so that we may achieve a communal gestalt of where the Spirit may be leading us.
At the root of all spiritual discernment is patience and humility (p.126). These qualities reflect the collaborative nature of the Spirit’s work in the world, the ultimate telos of which, according to Marshall, is the liberation of the oppressed and renewal of a groaning creation. “The reign of God,” writes Paul, “is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Thus an abundance of justice, peace, and joy—by their very nature Spirit-inspired concepts—reflects the essence of God’s intentions for creation. A friend of mine who teaches theology once told me (perhaps only half-jokingly) that he will never support animal rights efforts because he believes in offering justice only to those with the capability of asking for it verbally. “As soon as animals become capable of demanding rights for themselves,” he said, “I would be in favor of offering them those rights.” However, this perspective marginalizes those who do not possess the power to stand up for themselves (not to mention the fact that it assumes that white men get to decide who receives justice). Marshall’s vision of the winnowing, free-flowing Spirit suggests that the Spirit itself works within us to lend voice to the voiceless, whether those subjected to human trafficking or abused animals slaughtered en masse to meet the growing appetites of our excessive culture.
Chapter 8: Honoring Faith’s Promise
Appropriately, the final chapter dealing with constructive theology in Joining the Dance addresses the Spirit’s role in Christian eschatology. It is unfortunate, Marshall notes, that eschatology has become so widely perceived in recent years as falling under the “purview of cranks”. Rather than simply dwelling on some apocalyptic vision of the parousia, we must refocus the discussion of Christian eschatology to account for a Spirit who already indwells and is working among God’s faithful in the present creation. Such an eschatology must remain grounded “in continuity with what is already going on in this world” (p.141). This is a much more theologically revolutionary idea than it may at first appear. A renewed creation in which “God becomes all in all” is not the result of some final decisive act in which Christ radically puts his foot in the door of human history, but is rather a thoroughly Trinitarian realization of what the Spirit has been leading us toward all along.
The scriptural promise of the resurrection of the dead provides a glimpse of this realization. Far from an individualistically spiritual “change-of-address,” resurrection reflects the renewal of all creation and the very physical power of the Spirit over death and decay. “Resurrection of the body encompasses the whole community” (p.146). It is the restoring of all things to God and in God.
Not only is the Spirit the presence of God working in the world, it also offers hope that its work is not aimless or fruitless. The hope in the realization of God’s New Creation is itself part of the work of the Spirit. Words from Derek Webb’s recent song, “Everything Will Change,” describes well this eschatological hope that only the Third Person can provide:
And on that day, there will be no time for suffering;
And on that day, no hunger and no thirst;
And on that day, we’ll run out of time for death and tears…
But everything’s gonna change,
And nothing’s gonna stay the way it is;
One day we’ll wake and the curse will break
And even you won’t be the same
Our hope is not wasted on the day when everything will change.
Finally, though her language at the end of the chapter is vague—if not by intention then at least by necessity—Marshall attempts to explain the role in the Spirit’s renewal offered to other creatures as well as those of faith traditions that differ from Christianity. The all-encompassing power of the abundantly life-giving Spirit is too great to place restrictions upon, and since the Spirit empowers and utilizes all people, not just Christians, “the Spirit’s sustaining power grants them hope,” as well (p.153).
Chapter 9: Participating in the Life of God
Marshall’s final chapter is less of a full chapter and more of a brief conclusion to the book. In this conclusion, she reiterates her thesis that the Spirit of God—that most theologically neglected Third Person of the Trinity—is the divine sustainer and invitation-bearer who empowers us, like Christ, to participate in the ongoing dance for justice and peace and joy. The Spirit is the means by which “we participate in the life of God and God participates in our life together” (p.159). It is in our perichoretic dance with the divine Community that we “live and move and have our being” and find our identity as the body of Christ and beloved of God.
Joining the Dance is extremely well written, uplifting in style and in content, and well versed in biblical studies and historical theology. Marshall’s use of other theologians’ work and her ability to recall words that perfectly fit her argument are unparalleled. The book would have benefited from some discussion of the biological processes that naturally shape what it means to “be alive” rather than simply deferring to a generalized notion of the S/spirit as “life force,” as well as a more pronounced distinction between the human “spirit” and “soul”. The author does not seem to be concerned with recognizing humans as psychosomatic wholes, or examining what implications this may have in how we understand the Spirit. However, Marshall’s focused analysis of how the Spirit works and moves in the world, beckoning all Creation to “join in the dance” of the perichoretic communal life of God, is definitely worth the time of anyone who has lamented the shortage of literature on the subject of pneumatology. Marshall’s wisdom and passion for discerning the Spirit’s labors in our lives is evident in her extended and constructive treatment of the subject and how it relates to other areas of systematic theology, from christology to ecclesiology to eschatology.