Volume 36 - Issue 3

God and the Art of Happiness

by Ellen T. Charry

God and the Art of Happiness is a sequel to Ellen Charry's previous book: By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford University Press, 1997). As she points out in the introduction, the impetus behind the focus on happiness in both works was “when my beloved husband and companion of forty years died an untimely and pointless death” (p. ix). Contemporary writing on grief and suffering by theologians has tended to look intently into the experience of suffering and the presence of God in the teeth of trauma. In this study, Charry casts a more encompassing gaze and explores the art of happiness pursued in the aftermath of grief. Charry provides theological focus to this holistic account of happiness by coining the term asherism, which is meant to invoke the aspect of happiness conveyed by the Hebrew ʾašrêThis refers to a happiness that is found in the pursuit of an excellent way of life in community. Though there are other Hebrew terms for “happiness,” including śāmaḥ (which emphasizes the subjective aspect and connotes pleasure) Charry's broad argument in the book is that this second aspect (śāmaḥ) is subsidiary to the covenantal grounding for happiness denoted by ʾašrê. In the material that follows, Charry impressively rehabilitates the concept of happiness for a teleological and communal context.

The book begins by surveying the work of several theologians on the subject of happiness. Charry's presentation here is dynamic, alternating between brisk, focused, and at times exhaustive accounts of various figures depending on their significance for the topic of happiness. These first six chapters include treatments of Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, and a surprising and very helpful (though compressed) survey of modern thinkers, and it concludeswith a study of Joseph Butler. Throughout these chapters, one finds careful scholarship and pedagogical sensitivity on display.Charry does not caricature these figures or their thought, but neither is she inattentive to potential weaknesses in their approaches. Helpful, but not excessive, footnotes point towards appropriate references in secondary literature parsing out issues in interpretation. The burden of this section is that there are a number of resources for robust theological reflection on happiness, but no single thinker provides a holistic approach. We arrive at the present day to find a lamentable reliance on non-theological reflection on happiness, wishing for a theology of happiness that is both more robust and integrative.

This expectant but optimistic tone resonates into the next section, where one finds an exegetical study of selected biblical texts. This section is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather Charry undertakes this study in order to fill in some of the gaps that have been identified in the approaches by theologians analyzed in the preceding section and in order to offer a common ground on which to synthesize their approaches. Charry begins by treating asherist texts in the Pentateuch such as the Holiness Code in Leviticus or Deuteronomy's focus on reverence as predicating happiness. This is followed by treating the vocabulary of happiness in the Psalms and exegeting Proverbs' vision of “reverent obedience.” The author concludes by probing the Gospel of John for the asherist vision of happiness, which she identifies in the corporate soteriology of the OT. She notes discontinuities between the two visions but concludes that the result is not conflicting visions of happiness but rather that John “transforms what obedience to divine command looks like” (p. 240). There is indeed unity to be found in the accounts of happiness in the Bible: “each person is called to advance God's intention for creation's flourishing” (p. 241). This second exegetical section is thought-provoking and suggestive, in spite of Charry's limited selection of texts. She selects John's Gospel because the community for which it had been written had experienced significant trauma. Though this conclusion regarding the audience for John is not necessarily unanimous, this selective heuristic leads to a thought-provoking reflection. I take it as a sign of success for this sort of interdisciplinary study when one can easily imagine areas for further study. Along these lines, the device that Charry uses for her selection of OT texts might be similarly provocative for study of exilic OT texts.

These first two sections of the book are complementary; the critical appropriation of the Christian tradition on happiness in the first section informs the exegesis in the second. Along these lines, Charry reads the occasion of divine punishment in the Decalogue and Levitical Holiness Code as asherist (rather than voluntarist or arbitrary), using what she outlines as Aquinas' medicinal property of punishment in the previous chapter. In a similar way, she interprets the Christology of John's Gospel through an Augustinian filter, noting an implicit suggestion in the Gospel that happiness is possible only when love is healed. This approach, in this reader's opinion, enhances the more exegetically focused reflection that follows in the second half of the book.

The book concludes with a final synthetic chapter that draws together the various strands that have been laid out in preceding chapters. Here Charry demonstrates an impressive ability to bring theological resources to bear in constructing a theologically rigorous moral psychology. The integrative approach Charry pursues in this book—combining historical theology and biblical exegesis—is ambitious and rare in contemporary theological writing.Though readable, this is a sometimes dense account traversing secondary literature in historical theology, systematics, and biblical criticism. In spite of this, Charry impressively crafts prose that will edify non-academic readers. This volume should prove stimulating reading for students in theology, pastors, and theologically astute laypersons.The text may also be of particular interest to Christians engaged in counseling and therapy.

Jeremy Kidwell

Jeremy Kidwell
New College, University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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