Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering Robert Capon

Although he was no household name, Robert Farrar Capon was a noted Christian clergyman and author. Born in 1925 and a lifelong New Yorker, he passed away one year ago, on Sept. 5, 2013.
Robert Farrar Capon (in 2011)
Capon authored twenty books, and back in the 1980s I became aware of him and read at least some of one or two of his books—enough that I remembered him with appreciation.
Last September when I heard that Capon had died, I decided to read one of his books in his memory. The one I chose was "Parables of Grace" (1990), and I was not disappointed.
Here is part of what I wrote in my brief Goodreads review of that book:
As the title indicates, this work deals only with those parables of Jesus which especially emphasize grace, and Capon has a remarkable understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s grace. Some readers may even be offended by the radical nature of Capon’s understanding of grace.
His far-from-usual interpretation of the parables soon became evident in reading his “take” on them. For example, “We twentieth-century Christians—with our basically nineteenth-century view of childhood as a wonderful and desirable state—miss the point of the passage” about Jesus saying his followers would have to become like children.
He explains:
In Jesus’ time, and for most of the centuries since, childhood was almost always seen as a less than human condition that was to be beaten out of children as soon as possible. Therefore when Jesus sets us a little child as an example, he is setting up not a winsome specimen of all that is simple and charming but rather one of life’s losers (p. 17).
In “The First Parable of Grace: The Coin in the Fish’s Mouth,” his third chapter, Capon says that it is very sad      when the church acts as if it is in the religion business rather than in the Gospel-proclaiming business. What a disservice, not only to itself but to a world perpetually sinking in the quagmire of religiosity, when it harps on creed, cult, and conduct as the touchstones of salvation (p. 29).
Last month I read another of Capon’s books, "The Foolishness of Preaching" (1997), which I wish I could have read 50+ years ago when I was preaching every week. In it he calls religion, spirituality, and morality “grim pills” that stand in contrast to the radical grace he praises.
To Capon’s way of thinking, not only grace but also the forgiveness produced by that grace is radical and unconditional.
In “Death, Resurrection, and Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Servant,” the fifth chapter of "Parables of Grace," he contends that “the gift of forgiveness proceeds solely out of God’s love and is therefore antecedent to any qualifying action on the part of the receiver” (p. 40).
Accordingly, at the end of that chapter, Capon says that both heaven and hell are occupied by “only forgiven sinners.” Jesus forgives all. Thus,
The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven the forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked (p. 50).
Capon’s writing is captivating because of his out-of-the-ordinary ideas and also because of his witty ways of saying things. For example, I enjoyed his reference to being “stuck with a paradoxical pig in an off-putting poke” ("Foolishness," p. 11).
And speaking of paradox, his trilogy on the parables of Jesus has been published in one volume, "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus" (2002). I highly recommend it.
Yes, Robert Capon is a man worth remembering—and worth reading.


  1. Interesting, Leroy. I don't think I've ever read any of Capon's works. Thanks.

    1. Anton, thanks for reading this morning's article and for responding (as you usually do). Capon certainly had unique and thought-provoking views on the parables and many other topics. -- Leroy

  2. Thanks for opening up good potentials for myself and to be shared with seminaries in Southeast Asia.
    Les Hill

  3. Oh, Yes, Robert Farrar Capon!! On of my favorites through the years. Still in my library:Bed and Board, & The Supper of the Lamb. Thanks for reminding me to get the old books out and to read again.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Bob.

      I didn't include this in the article, but Capon had a lifelong interest in food and cooking, and authored several cookbooks. He was a food columnist for Newsday and The New York Times, and taught cooking classes.

      I think that "The Supper of the Lamb" may have been his most widely read book, but I have not read it or "Bed and Board." Thanks for introducing those books to the readers of this blog.

  4. I was happy to received comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker of Arizona again:

    "Thanks for the review of the works of Robert Capon. I have not heard of him but he sounds like a writer I would enjoy reading, and I plan to get his book you recommended.

    "Grace is one of those overworked religious words which meaning gets lost to us from overuse. I don't understand God's grace--I can only accept it. Maybe Capon's book will give me some new insights into that understanding.

    "Thanks again for the blog and the recommendation."

  5. And here are comments, and a question, from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "Capon's word on becoming as little children was a whole new perspective that I had never heard of. It fits with the reversal of fortune theme in Jesus' teaching on kingdom-living (first last/ rich poor/ outcast included/ etc.)

    "And what would you as a young preacher have done if you had read Capon?"

    1. Temp, thanks for reading and responding to this morning's blog posting.

      Yes, his perspective on becoming as little children was completely new to me also--and that made me realize how often we interpret the Bible from how we understand things now rather than how things were understood back when it was first written.

      That is a good question: perhaps I would have talked about grace more and less about judgment or demand--and I would probably have placed more emphasis on the Word and not so much on my words.

    2. I recently stumbled upon your blog and find it very insightful. Thank you!

      This perspective on being child-like is new to me, but quite meaningful. We read the Bible not only through a cultural lens, but we also wish we could "clean up" Jesus' teachings. How much easier it is to be child-like when that means being coddled; how much more difficult when it means being vulnerable!

    3. Indeed an interesting insight. Variant interpretations of the Bible, especially in western Christianity, are a key reason that I have been changing toward the traditional Church. When I began reading without presuppositions, the Gospels began to read quite differently. However, I do not trust my personal interpretation, so insights from the early Church fathers, and the ecumenical Councils has been helpful.

  6. Thinking Friend Patrick Crews in Arizona sent these comments (which I am slow in posting):

    "Thanks for sharing yet another Christian writer who was led by the Spirit.

    "The Unconditional Grace of God is certainly one of the clearest teachings of the New Testament, being spelled out in the Book of Romans. If there ever was a fundamental, Grace is it."

    Then after writing some about the Seventh-Day Adventists denomination, to which he once belonged, he concluded,

    "There are many other Christians whose misunderstanding is oriented to The Law. At best they will rejoice that the cross made grace possible. I rejoice that Grace is prior to the cross and makes it possible for God to be with us in the midst of our suffering."