Pacing the Cage with J. Richard Middleton

On Friday, May 3, a celebration was held at Roberts Wesleyan University/Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York, to honour the retirement of Prof. J. Richard Middleton.

As a long time friend and co-author with Richard, I was afforded the
privilege of speaking at that event.
I share those remarks here to honour my friend.

Not surprisingly, I began with a Bruce Cockburn song.

Bruce Cockburn, “Pacing the Cage” (Charity of Night)

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword

No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page

You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin

And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
Powers chatter in high places
Stir up eddies in the dust of rage

Set me to pacing the cage

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everythingAll that I could pillage

All the spells that I could sing
It’s as if the thing were written
In the constitution of the age

Sooner or later you’ll wind up
Pacing the cage

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend

Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage

Pacing the cage    Pacing the cage

Good afternoon friends.

I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am
to have this opportunity to pay tribute
to my friend, collaborator, teacher and brother, Richard Middleton.

None of Richard’s students in the room are surprised
that I would insert a Bruce Cockburn into our celebration today.

But why, some of you might be wondering …
why I have chosen Cockburn’s almost depressingly self-reflective
song, “Pacing the Cage” into what is supposed to be a celebratory event?

Might it be to celebrate the hours upon hours of listening
and interpreting Cockburn that Richard and I have enjoyed together over the years?


Might it be to remember the numerous articles, reviews and teaching events
that we have done together around Cockburn’s work?

Might it be simply to have one of Richard’s favourite Cockburn songs
echoing through this room on such a momentous day?

Could be.

Or is it simply a moment of self-indulgence which allows both Richard
and I to geek out over Rob Wasserman’s exquisite fretless bass solo?
Well … yea.

But more to the point, in Cockburn’s “Pacing the Cage”
I find both resonance
and dissonance with the life, ministry, teaching,

and writing of J. Richard Middleton.

I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that Richard
doesn’t wake up in the morning and say to Marcia,
“sometimes you feel like you live too long,
days drip slowly on the page.”

Nor do I imagine that Richard feels that he
has proven himself so many times,
“the magnetic strip’s worn thin.”

And, I suspect that everyone in this room would protest
if Richard were to confess to us that …
“each time I was someone else
and everyone was taken in.”

No, I think that we have all sensed a profound
dynamic continuity in the identity of Richard Middleton,

and never a hint of duplicity or phoniness.

So, there is some significant dissonance between
the Richard Middleton we come to celebrate today
and the struggling and frustrated identity
allusively evoked in this song.

And yet, in the metaphor of “pacing the cage”
I discern some resonance with Richard.

Nicholas Wolterstorff picked it up in his foreword to
our first book together, The Transforming Vision.
Forty years ago, Wolterstorff began his foreword with this sentence:

“A deep disappointment and a profound longing motivate this book,”

When it comes to much of institutional Christianity,
especially in its “evangelical” form,
Richard has been pacing the cage for all of his adult life.

Dissatisfied with the spiritual
and social constraints
of a Christian platonism
dividing body and soul,
that reduces the biblical vision
to individualistic salvation,
in The Transforming Vision:
Shaping a Christian World View
Richard and I sought to kick that cage wide open
to a holistic and radically restorative vision
of the Kingdom of God,
and whole life redemption in Christ.

Driven by a deep allergic reaction to all dualism,
to all escapist theology,

to all disconnected pietism …
and dissatisfied with the way in which the very idea of “worldview”
was already held captive by a modernist rationalism,
we sought to unpack a biblical vision of life
that would set us free to radical and full life discipleship.

In a telling moment of editorial confusion,
the copy-editor from our publisher changed the meaning of a whole page
because she said that as it stood
we seemed to suggest that Christian hope was not to go to heaven,
but to live in the new earth.

Surely, that is not what we meant.

Yes, we corrected her, that is exactly what we were saying,
and the original text needed to be restored.

This understanding of Christian hope,
this reading of the scriptures in terms of an eschatology

of a new heavens and a new earth
was rare in the early 1980’s.

It is now widely held
in the Christian community,
and nowhere more eloquently
and definitively argued
than in Richard’s magnificent book,
A New Heaven and a New Earth:
Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology.

[My review essay on this
amazing book can be found here.]

But here’s the thing,
if you have such an
all-encompassing vision,
then your work as a biblical scholar

cannot be constrained within
the cage of a single discipline,
or even by the constricting rules of that discipline.

And so it is that Richard is fluent
in multiple disciplinary languages.
His work has encompassed biblical studies
(both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament),
theology, cultural analysis (including music),
science, and philosophy.

Limit Richard to one disciplinary paradigm
and pretty soon he’ll start pacing the cage.

In fact, he was pacing the cage about The Transforming Vision
before it was even published.

Ir was December, 1983.

We were together in Montreal
and had finished the manuscript for The Transforming Vision.

After praying together and offering this book
for the furtherance of God’s kingdom, Richard said,
“you know that something is missing in this book.”

I thought that to be a strange thing to say at that particular moment.
Not enough on feminism? The nuclear threat? The environmental crisis?
But that isn’t what Richard was talking about.

“Nowhere in this book,” he said, “do we talk about suffering.”
I was dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me.

Richard then noted that suffering is a prevalent theme
throughout the whole biblical story, but we never talked about it.

And then he added,
“But that’s okay, since we don’t really know anything about suffering.”
We were too young. Too inexperienced in the world. Too naive.
And Richard had the wisdom to know it.

But Richard’s comment was prescient for both of us,
and before long each of us became acquainted with suffering and deep pain.

Before long we both learned the importance of lament
in spiritual life,

in pastoral care,
in cultural analysis,
in reading the scriptures.

This brings us back to Cockburn’s song.

“Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword.”

It was Richard who pointed out that this is not a simile.
The artist does not say that the sunset is like an angel weeping.
No, “sunset is an angel weeping.”

There is something deeply revelatory about that sunset.
The sunset in this song evokes something of the very suffering,

lament and groaning of all of creation.

In that sunset is revealed nothing less than a bloody sword
bearing witness to the violence of the day,
perhaps echoing the violence that the God
discerns at the very heart of broken humanity in Genesis 6.

As Richard and I listened to this song, we could see that angel of death,
almost taste the blood of a history of violence,
and we found ourselves squinting along with the songwriter,
trying to discern what all of this means,
and where all of it is going.

Biblical scholarship that does not intentionally
engage in such an exercise of prophetic discernment,

for the sake of shaping an alternative community of peace
in a culture rooted in a mythology of violence,
might be intellectually interesting,
but falls short of the scope, breadth and depth of the text.

Richard’s work, from Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be
to the magisterial Liberating Image has been rooted in
a theology of creational peace.

Richard has borne witness in all of his work
to a good creation, lovingly and wisely called into being,
an eloquent creation that must not be silenced,
a peaceful creation in which violence is an intruder.

That is why lament has been
so crucial to Richard’s work,
especially in Abraham’s Silence.

[You can find my review of Abraham’s Silence here.]

Precisely because Richard so deeply understands
the covenantal nature of God,
does he call us to a piety of lament and argument.

This is no piety of passive quietude.
No, this is a living, dynamic, and often contested, relationship.

And it seems to me that such faithfulness to covenant
is also at the heart of Richard’s teaching.

Cockburn sings,

I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
All that I could pillage
All the spells that I could sing

And I sense both resonance and dissonance here.

While I doubt that “pillaging” is an apt metaphor for how Richard
employs other scholars and artists,
his work is always widely interdisciplinary and informed
by the best of good scholarship.

But I think that Richard has been less concerned
about what his students all “wanted”
and more concerned with what they needed.

In this way, tapping into their deepest needs and longings,
Richard has been casting pedagogical spells over his students for decades.

I saw it the first time I sat in on a Christian worldview course
that he was teaching to students at the University of Toronto.
I’ve seen him in action with groups large and small.
And I’ve seen it over the years when we have met at conferences
and Richard would have a group of his students in tow.

And what I’ve seen is nothing short of love, my friend.
Your love for your students,

and that love beautifully reflected back to you by them.

You have not invited your students into a system of thought.

This is no systematic theology, no ideology,
no regime of propositional truths,

that you have on offer.

It isn’t even a “map” that will provide them
with a secure path through life,
because Cockburn is undoubtedly right:

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend

Maps aren’t very helpful if you are too disoriented
to tell north from south,
or if disaster is just around the next bend.

No, in the falling dark in which we live,
maps can become strident ideologies,
when what we really need is night vision.

Richard, one of the tests of your teaching
will be in how your students will have vision

and character in the dark days ahead
in this country, and in our world.

The song closes with these lines:

Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage

The metaphor shifts in a heart beat from
darkness to a bleached-out land,
but it is still a matter of vision.

Whether blinded by darkness or light,
squinting at a sunset
or trying to see through the glare of a bleached-out land,
it is all about vision.

But here I find the final dissonance
between your vision and Cockburn’s song.

From creation to eschaton
it’s never been about escape.

From your earliest teaching in Jamaica
to your final class at Northeaster Seminary,
you have offered your students a vision
of remaining, not leaving.

You are not looking for the outbound stage,
because your vision is set on the

incoming Kingdom, just beyond the range of normal sight.

So, in deep, deep gratitude,
we join you in working and waiting
for the miracle of that coming Kingdom
of healing, peace, and justice.

Richard we are so deeply grateful for you,
for your passion, your vision, your wisdom, your love.

We gather today as a cloud of witnesses
to your faithfulness and steadfast love.
May God smile upon you, together with beloved Marcia, Andrew and Kevin.
And may you smile back.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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