I was saddened to hear of the death yesterday of Robert Farrar Capon, a relatively little-known author whose writings have done much to shape my renewed understanding of God’s grace over the past three or four years.
An ordained Episcopalian minister, Capon served as a full-time Parish priest in his native New York for almost 30 years before deciding to leave the ministry to devote himself more fully to writing.
I have read few of the many books he wrote, but those I have read have impacted me greatly. He is perhaps the first orthodox writer I read who dared to explore and make plain, with no holds barred, the absolutely radical nature of God’s grace. His work on the parables of Jesus I found nothing less than paradigm-shifting, and his seminal Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace is both a work of literary genius and a masterly examination of the implications of grace. When I read Capon, I often scratch my head, I am forced to ask myself lots of questions, and I do not always agree with the conclusions he reaches. But I also find plenty of brilliant nuggets of revelation.
By way of a disclaimer, you should not read Capon’s work if you fall into one of two categories. First, if you don’t enjoy reading prose that is written by someone who is clearly highly literate and educated, I’d advise you to give Capon a miss. (Conversely, if you revel in writing that is intelligent, cultured and playful as well as piercingly insightful, you might consider giving him a try). And second, if you’re not prepared to have some of your perhaps most dearly-held notions about God, religion and church shaken to the core, you should definitely stay away.
I’ll leave you with a quote from The Parables of Grace that gives you a flavour of what Capon was all about:
Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle to the Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever finally succeed (see the Epistle to the Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection. For Christians, therefore, 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. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.
If you’d like to get more of a feel for what Capon was about, here’s a link to a wide-ranging and informative interview, first published in 2004.