Friday, 19 December 2014

Deviant doodlings

Were I even to try to answer the question “Why do I love you?”, I would be denying its premise; I would be saying “I do not love you.” Why do I love you? Becauselessly.

No one speaks in the silence of the world. And that is God.

So Augustine allegedly said, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Big deal. Jesus said she’s his wife.

For people who cannot claim a white-hot moment of conversion, or even a “heart strangely warmed”; people who are unaware, day by day, of Jesus holding their hand and talking to them in prayer; people who, in worship, sing without closing their eyes and raising their hands – is it okay for them to take Jesus as their impersonal Lord and Saviour?

Have I ever had a religious experience? Not if you mean an experience of a particular kind, let alone of a particularly elevating kind. (The crack of a bat, perhaps.) Otherwise only in the gift, guilt, and grief of the ordinarie.

“What about you?” he asked them, “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus said, “Golly-gosh, Pete! Wow! Thanks so much for sharing.”

I recently clicked on a blog post titled “Singing Contemporary Worship Songs Eschatologically” because I thought the “E” must be a typo.

Congratulations to the quite brilliant David Congdon, whose book The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology will be published in the spring of 2015. Reading the title off the cover, Matthew Frost tweeted, “So, is there a colon in the title, or does it just run straight through?” “Ha, colon!” David replied. So I’ve added the colon – and made it BIG. I mean, at over 700 pages, you’re going to need a huge colon to digest it, right?

What is said may be either profoundly true or painfully false depending on who says it. For example, Julian of Norwich’s celebrated intuition that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”: from T.S. Eliot (in “Little Gidding”) it’s a furnace-formed hope; from a spiritual dilettante it’s a cheap soporific.

Students demand texts that are “relevant”. Very well, give them what they want: texts they will dismiss as irrelevant: i.e., texts that will release them from the tyranny of the contemporary and fashionable. The relevance is in the recoil.

How do you prevent theology from becoming ideological? Martyrdom, perhaps, but, like the crucifixion itself, only as its witness is more an act of love than faith.

There once was a preacher named Joel,
who cried, “Savior, I do Thee extol,
for my health and my wealth,
and for me and myself.”
His theology floats in a bowl.
(Comment on Joel Osteen left at After Existentialism, Light)

There once was a man name of Crow,
had a dream he was free, but no mo’;
“Home, Sweet Home” was a jail
mass produced by the pale:
“Hey, this is America, bro’.”

Prisons are full of extremely dangerous people. If they’re doing their (inside) job right, none more so than the chaplain, the “Big X” in the breakout and relocation of the humanity of the incarcerated.

Why is the American prison system broken? Because it’s fixed.

The traditional arguments for the existence of God are not proofs but praise, immolations of the intellect, without spot or blemish, on the altar of faith. Or – to steal a phrase from Marilynne Robinson (commenting on Jonathan Edwards) – they are reason sanctifying the unknowable.

What is the difference between kindness and niceness? When children are quarrelling, we tell them to be nice to each other. Yes, because being nice is easy. It requires no effort, no empathy, no recognition of tension and difference (it comes from the Latin nescius, “ignorance”, and entered Middle English meaning “stupid”). Kindness, on the other hand, requires rigorous attention and moral imagination. It does not deny friction or fracture but acknowledges and embraces the other. The clue is in a common translation of gratia: not God’s loving-niceness but God’s loving-kindness.

“The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” (Stanley Hauerwas). That’s what worries me: epigram – or indictment?

There is word-care, there is word abuse, and there is word-torture – as in the expression “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

I saw that photo of LeBron James wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner, though – unhappy coincidence – it does double-duty as an endorsement of the CIA Torture Report.

“LGBT Christians Respond to Southern Baptists’ Call for Kindness, Understanding” (Religion Dispatches). Favourably, I trust. It would be quite unchristian to be mean and unsympathetic to Southern Baptists. After all, it’s not like they’re intrinsically disordered, just inordinately obstinate. LGBT Christians, let us love the sinner and hate the sin.

(To the tune of “Car 54, Where Are You?”)
There’s a crisis down in Rome,
There’s a lot of it about,
Baptists too – “What should we do?
Let them in or keep them out?”
Goddam gays won’t go away
(Good old days – auto-da-fés) –
Ross, Rick, and Al, where are you?

Reflecting on his life not long before he died, Karl Barth wrote to his friends that he had only one serious regret: “my failures in real gratitude.” My own list will be a helluva lot longer, but already I can add “my negligence in paying attention”.

The young find themselves fascinating; the old, frustrating.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). Only someone who knows that he will shortly die could say such a thing.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Death of a sister

Two days ago we buried Ginger. Good sweet Ginger, who had meant the world to those who knew her. Ginger, who left our lives – but not our hearts – too soon.

Since the first day we met her, my children and I, we never saw Ginger without her sister. The two of them were inseparable. They lived a contented, unassuming life in a little wooden cabin nestled among the sprawling unkempt gardens and the trees. Theirs was a life that seemed to know nothing of the anxieties that come from grand schemes and high ambitions. They had pieced their world together out of a thousand tiny kindnesses, small gestures, shared moments that would have looked like nothing at all to anyone who had not studied the intricate domestic choreography of those sisters.

There is a fellow in our neighbourhood who once had the effrontery to describe the sisters’ life as “dull” – which seemed to me as confused a notion as if he had reproached a German clock for dullness just because it always keeps the time. Certainly there was something staid, almost Victorian, about the manners and habits of those sisters. But the fact that a thing is small and precise, the fact that it follows a scrupulous routine, does not make it empty or contemptible. One can bluster about like the busiest person in the world and yet be fundamentally bored with life – that is the fate of so many of our contemporaries – or one can live richly and well with one’s sister in the confines of a small wood cabin, oblivious to all the world outside. Such was Ginger’s life: a small and uneventful life, perhaps, but a good life too.

And because the life of Ginger was free of all ambition and pretence, it was a hospitable life that always had room for friends and strangers and, most of all, for children. I would like to give you some picture of what Ginger came to mean to my children, but any account will fall far short of the thing itself. Little by little, in her own modest and matter-of-fact way, she welcomed my children into her gentle world. The sisters’ cabin, just a short walk from our own back door, soon became a regular destination. There I would find the children playing, eating, singing, or huddled in a circle chattering away with Ginger and her sister scarcely able to get a word in edgewise.

It sometimes happens that children trespass the boundaries of common courtesy; and there must have been occasions on which the sisters felt that their orderly world had come unhinged in the bustling presence of my three children – not to mention all the times when one of the children would show up, unannounced and unexpected, with a friend in tow. But I never saw anything in the demeanour of those sisters to suggest even a flicker of impatience. They were as indulgent with my children as if they had been their own. Ginger in particular became something of a confidant for my younger daughter. I recall times when, hurt or disappointed, my daughter went straight to Ginger’s place to tell her all about it even before she thought to tell her own parents. Not that Ginger ever spoke of such things to me. Whatever secrets my daughter might have shared with her were sealed up in the impeccable confidentiality of Ginger’s heart, just as they are sealed now forever in the colder confidentiality of the grave.

How suddenly Ginger’s illness came on, and how quickly her frail health went from bad to worse, are matters of which I will not speak here. We had driven her to the hospital – neither Ginger nor her sister drives a car, nor have they ever felt the need of one – and the look on the doctor’s face told us everything. At the very end, we nursed her in our own home. She died around midnight on the night of Thursday December 11th, after those who loved her had stroked her smooth brow and said their last goodbyes. 

Ginger was laid to rest near the the big maple tree. We read a psalm and said the prayers that are reserved for such occasions. We thanked God for the simple goodness of Ginger’s life, and prayed that, following her example, we might be good and true and simple in our own lives too. We looked forward to the final day when Ginger will rise with us and with all the ones we ever loved and lost. When there was nothing left to say we threw handfuls of earth into the grave. 

The other guinea pig, Ginger’s sister, peered out at the proceedings from my daughter’s protective embrace. Her whiskers twitched. Her soft fur, chestnut-brown, was wet with children’s tears.

When the solemnities had concluded we placed fresh flowers on the grave. We went into the back yard and raised the hinged roof on the wooden hutch and put Ginger’s sister back inside. She shot us a quizzical glance and went back to eating an old carrot. There was something sort of bereaved in the way she nibbled at it. For consolation we brought her lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, a sprig of parsley, an apple sliced in two. There is nothing like fresh veggie scraps for the wounded spirit.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

New Camaldoli Hermitage notebook

When I arrive one of the brothers gives me an orientation to the monastery. He shows me the chapel and which books to use for each service, he shows me my cell with its private garden looking out over the ocean, he explains the fireplace and the bells and the time for meals. He tells me what to do if a deer should come into my garden (don’t corner it), and what to do if I see a skunk (ditto), and what to do if one of the mountain lions strays on to the monastery (clap hands and sing a psalm while maintaining eye contact at all times). I wonder if there is anything in the Rule of Benedict about dealing with mountain lions.

Also he tells me: at the right time of the year you can sit in this cell and watch a hundred whales go by. I try to keep my composure, but in my heart I bless the Lord.

The cells are similar in design to the ancient monastic cells that have been excavated in the Nitrian desert. A main sitting room branching off into a small bedroom, chapel, bathroom, and kitchen, all opening on to an enclosed garden. The desert fathers each had a well in the garden too, though many of them also had slaves to draw the water. Taps with running water are one of those small but significant improvements to the monastic life. It is not true that the earliest is always the best.

Soon after arriving I hurry to the chapel for evening prayer. The first words that we sing are one of my favourite verses from the Psalms: I love the Lord, for he heard my cry.

I have not spoken today but I have not been silent either. All day long the voices in my mind chatter away like school children on their lunch break.

Coming out from morning prayer I stood outside the chapel and looked over the sea and saw a whale spouting, then another. For a second I forgot to breathe, as one always does when one sees whales. Then with all haste I got in the car and drove down the mountain to get a closer look. On the winding road down from the monastery I saw them spout again. But when I had got to the bottom and stood on the cliff above the sea, I found that the whales were out of sight. I had failed to reckon on the fact that you can see so much further from higher up. There are times when the closer you get to a thing, the more it recedes from view.

At mass each day the brothers form a circle around the altar and all the guests and visitors make a wider circle. When the presider raises his hands for the epiclesis, all the monks who are priests also raise their hands towards the altar. I like the theology behind this gesture, even if it feels a bit hocus pocus to see so many priests arranged in a circle with their hands stretched out towards the centre. I suppose you have to do this kind of thing in California. Anyway it’s reassuring to know that the mass would still be completed even if a presiding brother were to keel over and die on the spot.

After evening prayer the mountain is wrapped in darkness. I have been instructed to use the torch provided in my cell because it will reduce the risk of walking straight off the edge of a cliff and never being seen again. But I prefer to shuffle cautiously in the dark because the stars, shy nocturnal creatures that they are, come closer when there is no other light. On a high cliff I find a bench and lie down and watch the stars, great thickets of them burning out of the silent past. I remember how I always feared the dark when I was a child, ever since we lived in that place with the outdoor toilet (haunted by Australian spiders) that could only be approached by following a winding path under the menacing trees while nightmares rustled in the dead leaves on every side. Even as a teenager I was forever glancing behind me when I was alone and in darkness. And I remember how nineteen years ago, the night you came down and took possession of me, the first thing that happened was I stopped being afraid. From that night to this I have always found great consolation in darkness. I lie here on the bench beneath the moving stars and think: this is your gift to me, this darkness.

On my morning bike ride I saw a snake on the road. It was a baby, less than a foot long, black with an orange belly and a single orange ring around its neck, and it was trying to cross the road. I stopped a while to monitor its progress and, if necessary, to help it get safely across. Judging from its rather phlegmatic style of slithering, I am not sure it was fully apprised of the precariousness of the situation. But when I gave it an encouraging nudge it only rose its little head as if to strike, so I rode off and resolved to let nature take its course. Coming back later I saw the little thing broken on the road. A car had got him. I hoped his mother would never find out. Sometimes it is better not to know. Let her go on supposing that he has hitched a ride to San Francisco and that he is fulfilling all his dreams in the city. Let her go on hoping. There are people who say that knowing is always best, but if this vale of tears has taught me anything it’s that sometimes a little ignorance can go a long way.

My fifth Thanksgiving dinner in America. Twice with families, once with students, once with the homeless, and now with monks. Evaluation: families have the best cooking, students have the best music, the homeless have the best conversation, and the monks have the best wine.

Each night after evening prayer we sit on mats around the altar. One of the brothers carries consecrated bread and sets it on the altar. Three candles are burning. Then the lights go down and we sit for half an hour in silence. Some of the monks and visitors adopt the lotus position. Last night there was a visitor who filled our silence with the sounds of stifled weeping. When it is over the lights come on and everybody goes away. The icon of the Trinity is asking me a question as I touch the font and go out into the dark.

Sometimes I can hardly tell if I am myself or someone else. Sometimes everything in my life reminds me of you. My eyes look out on the sky and the sea but it all reminds me of you who looked out on this world with human eyes (my eyes) and loved it, every last infuriating bit of it. In your eyes, God looked at the world from the inside and saw that it was good. Not that it was a pretty sight. You saw Satan too. He fell like lightning under your gaze. St Thomas said there are five ways to prove the existence of God. I don’t know anything about that, but when I see my own five fingers they remind me of your hands. My feet, tired from walking, remind me of all the roads you travelled on feet like mine. You have cut your paths in me. Everything in me leads back to you. If I desire anything at all, my longing becomes a path to you: for all desire bends invisibly to you and all love whispers your name. If I were to lose you, my loss would become your way to me: for you take special pleasure in finding whatever is lost. If I were to flee from you, my flight would lead me to you: for you are the door that I would finally reach in search of refuge. If I were to hate and reject you, even my hate would lead me to you in the end, and I would find there that the rejected stone had become the cornerstone of my life. Everything in my life is pointing the way to you if only I have eyes to see. My whole being is speaking your name if only I have ears to hear it. I am the place from which you call to me. I am a constant, painful reminder to myself of the great Love that has touched with human hands, seen with human eyes, and heard with human ears. Love calls to me not only from beyond my life but also from within it. You have got under my skin. That’s my problem and my salvation. There is no escaping a human God.

The Camaldolese brothers have a special love for the Little Rule of St Romuald. It is framed on the wall of my cell. “Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it.”

A saying of St Antony: “Life and death depend on our neighbour. For if we win over our brother, we win over God.”

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Theology sessions at AAR

The scholars of the world are now descending on San Diego for the annual meeting of SBL and AAR. Here are some theology sessions that look notable to me. If you know of any other interesting sessions, feel free to leave the details in a comment.

M22-109
Pentecostal Theological Seminary
Theme: The Promise of Robert Jenson's Theology: Constructive Engagements
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire D
Featuring Daniela Augustine, Eugene Rogers, R. Kendall Soulen, and Steve Wright

A23-334
Wildcard Session
Theme: Mission in Comparative Perspective – Atheist, Mormon, and Inter-religious Views
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Convention Center-9
Featuring Aaron Ghiloni, David Golding, Jesse Smith, Ferdinando Sardella, and Janice Rees

A24-110
Religion and the Social Sciences Section
Theme: Remembering Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)
Erik Owens, Boston College, Presiding
Monday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-28D
Featuring Victor Anderson, Eric Gregory, R. Marie Griffith, David Novak, Daniel Philpott

A22-323
Eastern Orthodox Studies Group
Theme: Georges Florovsky and Changing Paradigms of Modern Orthodox Theology
Saturday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-310A
Featuring Matthew Baker, George Hunsinger, Cyril O'Regan, Vera Shevzov, Brandon Gallaher, and Paul Gavrilyuk

M22-303
Bonaventurean Studies
Theme: The Disciplines of Wonder: Bonaventure and Theological Method
Saturday - 6:00 PM-8:00 PM
Marriott Marquis-Torrey Pines 1
Featuring Travis Ables, Holly Taylor Coolman, Andrew Davison, Peter Spotswood Dillard, Shannon McAlister, Kevin L. Hughes, Daniel Wade McClain

A23-311
Philosophy of Religion Section and Theology and Religious Reflection Section
Theme: What is "Theological" about Theology? A Conversation between Analytic and Continental Perspectives
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Indigo E
Featuring Tamsin Jones, Sarah Coakley, Oliver Crisp, Kevin Hector, Andrea C. White

P22-106
Karl Barth Society of North America and Eberhard Jüngel Colloquium
Theme: Eberhard Jüngel at 80
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-29D
Featuring Ingolf Dalferth, John Webster, George Hunsinger, Paul Hinlicky, R. David Nelson

 M23-200
Analytic Theology Lecture Series
Theme: Fourth Annual Analytic Theology Lecture
Sunday - 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-Indigo B
Lecture by Oliver Crisp (*note to grad students: sessions includes free food and drink)

P21-315
North American Paul Tillich Society & Reinhold Niebuhr Society
Theme: A Review of Politics and Faith: Niebuhr and Tillich at Union Seminary in New York
Friday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Omni-Gaslamp 5

M22-301
Society for Pentecostal Studies
Theme: Pentecostal Readings of Biblical Texts
Saturday - 4:00 PM-6:30 PM
Marriott Marquis-Laguna

A23-318
Eastern Orthodox Studies Group, Middle Eastern Christianity Group, and World Christianity Group
Theme: Middle Eastern Christians, Collective Memory, and the “Arab Spring”
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Convention Center-29A

22-116
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group
Theme: Augustine on the Emotions
Saturday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-23A

A23-310
Comparative Studies in Religion Section
Theme: Comparative Messianism: Messianism and the Political
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Hilton Bayfront-502A
Featuring David Novak, A. Azfar Moin, Elaine H. Pagels, Francis X. Clooney, Kurt Anders Richardson

A24-212
Christian Systematic Theology Section
Theme: Human Ends: Deification, Transformation, and Human Freedom
Monday - 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Convention Center-2

A25-105
Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group and Niebuhr Society
Theme: Kierkegaard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Current Political Theology
Tuesday - 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Convention Center-24A

A25-111
Christian Systematic Theology Section
Theme: The Human: Body, Soul, and (Holy) Spirit
Oliver Crisp, Fuller Theological Seminary, Presiding
Tuesday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-23A

A25-123
Platonism and Neoplatonism Group
Theme: Image and Idol in Neoplatonism and Christian Platonism
Tuesday - 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Hilton Bayfront-501B

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sunset over Long Beach

Seal
I watch the sea gulls and the pelicans and then I watch two seals swimming in the bay. They remind me of my dog when he goes swimming, black nose gliding through the water. I watch the seals for a long time and I want to cry out to the other people on the beach, “Behold! Seals!” But I know they are watching the seals too, and I know the seals come here all the time. My heart is heavy when the seals go away. But then one of them comes back and makes me glad. There is no kind of evening that does not improve in the company of seals.

Ship
The big container ships creep by in the distance as slow as snails. They are necessary, these steel contraptions. How else could we get all the cheap stuff made in China? Our houses are filled with brave seafaring trinkets. They are necessary, these ships, and they are the ugliest things on the sea. But when one of them is far enough away and when the sun is setting and all the lights come on, a container ship can look as lovely as Christmas. One yearns for it as one yearns for the lonely unreachable stars. Standing on the beach at sunset, a child would give anything in the world to make the voyage out to those far lights that glitter with such heavenly promise.

Saint
A man gets out of a car and stands beside me. He’s one of those gangsta types in baggy gangsta clothes. We stand for a while looking at the sea. Without turning he asks me, “What’s going on?” I tell him, “The sun is setting.” “True that,” the gangsta says. “Happen right here every day.” Then he goes down on to the sand and stays there a long time. Later I see him sitting on the sand, hands folded, looking up into the golden sky. The longer I watch him, the more I am persuaded that he is a poet or a saint.

Love
In the car park behind me a man and woman are arguing in their car. Their voices carry across the sand and mingle indistinctly with the voices of sea gulls and the splash of a landing pelican. I never fail to be impressed by American eloquence. It must be all that therapy. As the sun continues its slow descent over the port of Long Beach, the car park argument gets louder and then I realise they are not arguing at all, only conversing. And there is something else in their voices too: soon they will be making love.

Skirt
A woman in a pink hijab goes right down to the water and takes a selfie with the pink sky and the lights of the Long Beach oil island behind her. When she turns around again a fish jumps, big and silver, and the woman wheels back and squeals in surprise and her long skirt whirls about her in the wind. I wish I could have taken a photograph to show you because it was as pretty as any picture: the pink sky, the pink hijab, the pink and yellow lights, the silver fish, the silk skirt twirling like a dancer’s.

Colour
When I die I don’t want to do it in some windowless white room, doped into oblivion while machines labour over me and faceless doctors tinker with my insides. No black and white death for me! Let me die at sunset. Wheel me out on to the beach and let my eyes be filled with pelicans and my ears with seagulls’ cries. If you can add a seal or two and a pretty Muslim woman startled by a fish, so much the better. Just let me die with open eyes and all the colours blazing, that’s all I ask.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

But have not love: meditation on 1 Corinthians 13


And to think that all this time I called myself a Christian! But Christ lay dead in me.

I spoke in tongues with the Pentecostals, attended Bible study with the evangelicals, kissed icons with the Orthodox, worked for justice with the liberals. But Christ lay dead in me.

I went to church and said amen, I sang the alleluias. But Christ lay dead in me.

I prayed Christ’s words, I knew them all by heart, I ate the bread of life and drank his cup. But Christ lay dead in me.

I kept the Lenten fast and kept the vigil, sang Easter hymns, said Christ is risen. But Christ lay dead in me.

I studied Christ, read books about him, and as if that weren’t enough I wrote some too. (Letter from a woman in Johannesburg: Thank you for your book. It helped me to believe in Christ again.) But Christ lay dead in me.

With the gift of prophecy stirring in my chest I climbed the narrow steps into the pulpit. I looked out on the faces of the waiting worshippers. I preached Christ to them as though my life depended on it. But Christ lay dead in me.

I did my prayers and readings, I lit a candle and knelt each night before the cross above my bed. But Christ lay dead in me.

I went on pilgrimage, prayed in monasteries, visited great churches and cathedrals, saw the relics of saints and martyrs. But Christ lay dead in me.

I prayed O wisdom, O Adonai, O root of Jesse, O key of David, O morning star, O king of nations, O Emmanuel. It was Advent and I prayed as if expecting something. But Christ lay dead in me. 

The doubts began. Not niggling manageable doubts but doubts like earthquakes, doubts that shift the roads and bring the bridges down. Not that I had many doubts, only four. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Four witnesses who said that Christ was still alive. But I knew the place where they had laid him: for Christ lay dead in me.

I took the consecrated bread. I thought, it is the greatest mystery or the greatest folly, who knows which. I ate it as though eating death. For Christ lay dead in me.

When they told me lift up your hearts, I lied we lift them to the Lord. My heart was ashes, not thanks and praise. I could not lift it if I tried. Christ lay dead in me.

And then.

And then I sought and found my enemy, the one I love the least. I looked into his face. I spoke his name. I clasped his hand and said my brother. And Christ stood up in me, alive as on the first day, and inside me something moved, as big as stones, and all the graves gaped open.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

In praise of short sentences

One of the themes of my life this year has been the short sentence. Early in the year an experienced editor brought to my attention the virtues of the short sentence. I took his words to heart. I have been trying to use a greater variety of sentence types in my writing, and I have particularly been labouring to achieve good short sentences. It is harder than it sounds.

I have also begun to notice that many college students could improve their writing dramatically merely by setting their sights on shorter sentences. Many students have somehow got the assumption that scholarly writing requires a certain tone of voice. I don’t know where this assumption comes from. I am inclined to blame it on the rhetorical posturing of well-meaning but fundamentally inept high school English teachers – the kind of teacher who promotes “critique” and “decoding” of “texts” instead of explanation and clarity of ideas. I do not blame these teachers. I hope they will still be allowed into heaven. I know they are only doing what they’re told. At any rate, whatever the source of this malaise, the symptoms are evident in the tendency of students to obfuscate simple ideas through a complexification of syntax, a multiplication of imprecise verbs instead of the selection of the one strong verb, and a deliberate substitution of polysyllabic words whose meanings are often vague and slippery for smaller ones whose meanings are plain and solid. It is all very anti-working-class. The student’s shame of his uneducated parents and their drab suburban home is transferred to a (deeper and more scandalous) shame of plain speech. Nothing good will come of this.

So I have been encouraging students to aim for shorter sentences that say exactly what you want to say, not for longer sentences that sound the way you would like to sound. And – physician, heal thyself – I’ve been trying to do it too.

I have also been noticing short sentences when I read. Sometimes I have underlined a sentence simply because it is so short and good. One of the theological geniuses of the short sentence is Tertullian. Some of Tertullian’s most impressive (and humorous) rhetorical effects are achieved with short sentences. In his treatise on the Trinity Against Praxeas, he cites a list of biblical texts used by his opponents, and then responds drily with a two-word sentence: “Legimus omnia” – “We’ve read all that.” What a sentence! Sharp as a sniper’s shot. The whole of Tertullian’s little treatise on the Roman toga (De Pallio) is abuzz with similar short-sentence effects, humorous and biting and precise.

A modern genius of the short theological sentence is the congregationalist writer P. T. Forsyth. He uses potent bursts of staccato sentences. Like the following: “To lead the democracy the Church must be free of the democracy. The Church is not a democracy. It is certainly not the democracy on its religious side. That is but Hooker up to date. It is latter-day Erastianism. What is the difference? Democracy will acknowledge no authority but what it creates whereas the Church has no authority but what creates it. It is an infinite difference…. The Church is not the indiscriminate champion of the democracy but its benefactor, its faithful friend and prophet. It is not its tribune but its conscience. The Church is not there in the first instance to represent democracy, but to represent God to the democracy. It is not there to speak for it, but to speak to it” (The Church and the Sacraments, p. 118).

What a difference it would make to contemporary theological writing if we had more of this! At the end of his treatise on the toga, Tertullian avows his preference for the philosopher’s cloak over the Roman toga with the short exclamation: “Gaude pallium et exsulta!” – “Rejoice, O cloak, and exult!” I will paraphrase the great North African, in praise of short sentences: Rejoice, O short sentence, and triumph!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Desperado doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Imagine a book of theology in which, among your marginal notes, LOL outnumbers NB. Pray for the conversion of Terry Eagleton.

What do you call a novel with a clear moral message? Propaganda.

Good tragedy will cast you down, but it won’t make you despair; good comedy will make you laugh, but it won’t cheer you up.

Four words of Jesus that many Christians don’t seem to get: “εγω δε λεγω υμιν …” (in the Antitheses, Matthew 5:21ff.).

—“What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?”
—Peter answered, “Is this another one of your trick questions?”
—Jesus said, “No, straight up.”
—Peter said, risked, “Hmm… Don’t you mean ‘Who is my neighbour?’”
—Godsmacked, Jesus said, “Er, yes, I guess I do.” (Mark 8:29ff., Original Autograph)

Some Pharisees and Herodians said to Jesus, “Tell us: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus knew it was a trick question and replied, “Why are you playing mind games with me? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” They handed him one. He flipped it, and said, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” (Mark 12:15f., Original Autograph)

“One Christian is no Christian” (Tertullian). Just the one? (Cf. Matthew 26:22.)

Pastors, be careful – and be prepared – if you comfort the bereaved with the assurance that God himself has felt the grief of losing a loved one. “Yes,” you might hear in reply, “for a couple of days. I’ve lost my keys for longer.”

You could sum-up the theopathology of the Religious Right by saying that it has a beattitude problem.

If the US is a great country, it’s because it produces so many un-American Americans.

Rachel Held Evans – what? – close and kissed him? upright when drunk? by the scruff of his neck? on a charge of identity theft? at gunpoint? Possibilities abound.

Sign outside The Church of the Extra Virgin in the parish of Erewhon: “We Now Extend a Warm Welcome to / a Tepid Provision for / a Not-Quite-So Cold Shoulder to the Intrinsically Disordered.”

What is the difference between the atheisms of Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton? I would say that while the former writes horseshit, the latter indulges in bullshit: the theological ignorance and vieux jeu rationalism of the one, the mauvaise foi and quiche spirituality of the other.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, that’s because it’s easier to love people when they’re not here in all their unsettling density and awkward detail. So too with Jesus. Were the Messiah hanging around my house rather than sitting at the right hand of God, I’m quite sure I’d think him a pain in the ass. Or rather even more a pain in the ass.

As the science of climate change grows ever more conclusive and monitory, the politics of climate change grows ever more posturing and dilatory. Let’s face it: the planet is screwed. Fine, I can die with that, but let’s at least cut the sanctimonious crap of leaving the world a better place than we found it, and safer for our children and grandchildren.

For too many people, getting to the top is a damn shame: the gifts they bring are liable to rust, while the skills they acquire are likely to ruin; the best they can expect is frustration, the worst corruption.

Why do people have affairs? To feel again. For the excitement, including the tactical challenges of tryst and evasion. The irresistible attraction of transgression (the theft of pears). The atavistic irresponsibility of it (childhood regained). And the fucking, of course the fucking, audacious and feral. A perfect storm for disordered desire with its wreckage of deceit and betrayal.

There are Christians who will not condone
using swearwords like “damn”, let alone
filth like “asshole” or “prick”,
yet who don’t give a shit
at the killing of thousands by drones.

So “Norway has been named as the best country in the world to grow cold” (MSN News, 3 October). Oops, that should be “old”.

Whenever there is a hue and cry that “Something must be done!”, you can be sure that the ensuing something mustn’t.

A politician says: “X is the lesser of two evils [X and Y].” A politician means: “X is good, Y is evil.” Politicians are inveterate Manicheans.

A politician lauded for “strong leadership”, for “knowing his own mind”, rarely has a mind worth knowing, except as a case study in sociopathy.

I was excited to read recently that there has been a huge surge in requests for “The Kim” – only to have my vanity quickly deflated. It turns out that the article was referring to a “bottom enhancement procedure” (a “bacial”) modelled on the butt of “Rear of the Year” Kim Kardashian. Not exactly what I had in mind.

66 on 6 October: I’m a beast.

I’ve begun to play hide-and-seek again, but now my playmates are memories.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

A typical day: Friday diary

God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.

I have to give a short talk tonight. I need to write 1500 words. I went to a cafe and got some coffee and wrote it. It was fine. It gave me pleasure to quote the City of God. Everyone in the world wants the same thing: peace. But you can’t get it unless, instead of aiming for peace, you aim for God. Augustine is always coming up with things like that. Another one I read the other day: goodness is something you can possess only by sharing it; as soon as you try to keep it for yourself, you don’t have any.

I walked past an antique store. They had an old three-volume set, very nice, of Boswell’s diaries. I nearly bought them. I stopped myself just in time on the grounds that I already had two editions and still hadn’t read it all. But with Boswell you never feel like you need to read it all. If you are wise you will always save some for later, since never again until the end of the world will there be another Boswell.

I read a book on Hellenistic aesthetics, by Barbara Somebody, with lots of photos of sculptures and paintings. I was moved by all those statues showing infants committing violence. A baby strangling a goose. A baby crushing a duck. A baby strangling snakes in both hands. Also the grotesques: statues of dwarves, hunchbacks, drunken old women. And the beautiful sad slaves. Apparently there is more to the Hellenistic aesthetic than just bad poetry.

A minister was telling me all about Tinder, the dating app. You swipe left to reject someone and right to accept them. He did the hand actions on an invisible phone. Then he said he worried that things like this are diminishing our humanity. His cheeks glowed with pleasure.

I have noted, with some concern, that lately I have forgotten to be afraid of dying. This has made me more cantankerous. A bit insensitive towards my fellow man. I offended somebody yesterday and I think I might have offended someone else today. These are people I like. (I would never offend a stranger.) I wonder if this could explain the famed irritability of our Christian monks and ascetics. Without the fear of dying one runs the risk of becoming just a little bit cranky and unkind.

Missed my afternoon nap in my study. So I snuck into the chapel while no one was around and lay down on the floor for ten minutes. Lying there in the big clear silence, not ten feet away from the baptismal font, my reveries were shattered by the sound of three text messages arriving in my phone. Without checking to see who it was, I wished them harm. In the sacred stillness of the chapel I cursed the sender of the messages and wished them harm.

I had a conversation with a gentleman who loves the novels of Roberto Bolaño. I told him I respect Bolaño, I have read them all, I thought 2666 was tremendous. But love Bolaño? I can’t quite imagine what that would mean. He said, “What about Cormac McCarthy then?” I could tell that we would never see eye to eye on this matter. We talked about Flannery O’Connor, who once said that she had gone to someone's house and they had shown her a chicken that could walk backwards. Flannery O’Connor would have been right at home in the town where I grew up.

I went into a bar and got a beer. All the tables were taken, but an old geezer with a grizzled head and a delirious coloured shirt offered me a seat at his table. He looked a little bit homeless. I toasted his health. He asked me what I was drinking and I said it was beer but apart from that I didn’t know. I asked what he was drinking and he said it was something foreign. Mexican maybe, or Japanese. “But,” he said with immense satisfaction, “it’s the cheapest.”

In the car I am listening to an audiobook of Burke on the French Revolution. I love the eighteenth-century English sentence. It is always full of surprises, if you can pay attention long enough to hear the whole thing out. The nineteenth-century sentence is a different matter. It is like the champagne after the party is ended. The glass is warm. All the bubbles have gone out of it. Drinking it doesn't alleviate your misery but only deepens it.

I stopped on the way home to pick up a pizza. The girl at the counter is pretty in a sultry, inaccessible sort of way. She has a mouth like Scarlett Johansson. And that’s saying something. It is always a pleasure to hand her my credit card. If you pressed your face into her hair it would smell like pizza dough and oregano. But they don’t like it if you behave that way when you’re paying for your pizza. I paid for it and waited, watching an old music video on a big TV above the drinks fridge. The sound was turned down and I kept trying to remember the tune, but in my head it kept getting mixed up with the tune of “Happy.” Then the pizza guy came from the kitchen with the pizza. Unlike most people in his station in life, he looked me full in the face and smiled at me and said my name. He was a middle eastern kid, Lebanese maybe, with one of those thin Muslim beards, and when he handed me the pizza I could have sworn he had the face of Jesus. Or maybe he was just grinning like that because he gets to work with Scarlett Johansson.

My daughter is sick. In a household of this size there is always someone who is sick or down on their luck or torn by a moral dilemma. She woke again just now. I gave her some medicine and put her back to bed. The dog is sleeping in solidarity beside her. He has a better life than any of us, yet he is always the first to sympathise with any human misfortune. Once he ate twelve eggs from a carton that was left out on the table. Once he ate a whole packet of biscuits. Once he ate three chickens. We didn’t give him any sympathy, I can tell you. But when a child is sick he is always the first to lick their face and to lie down on the floor beside them and to stay there through the night, just in case they wake and reach out in the dark and need to feel something strong and reassuring at their side.

Day and night I cry to you, my God.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Christology: twelve grammatical rules

I've just finished another semester teaching christology. This is one of my favourite classes. (My other favourite is the Trinity.) Really it's one of the joys of my life to be able to explore such things in a classroom setting. In the tutorials we worked our way through two of the richest works on christology ever written: the third volume of Irenaeus's Against Heresies, followed by Athanasius's On the Incarnation. The twelve weekly lectures were as follows:
Part I. Lord Jesus Christ: New Testament Christology 
1. The Son of Man: Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
2. The great interchange: Christ in Paul’s letters
3. The Word made flesh: Christ in the Gospel of John 
Part II. The Iron in the Fire: The Doctrine of the Incarnation 
4. Adam recapitulated (Irenaeus)
5. Wisdom, Word, and Image (Origen)
6. What is not assumed is not healed (Gregory of Nazianzus)
7. The iron in the fire: two natures, one person (Cyril of Alexandria)
8. Singing in one voice: the whole Christ, head and body (Augustine)
Part III. Redeemer of the World: The Doctrine of the Atonement
9. Deification: renewing the image (Irenaeus and Athanasius)
10. Satisfaction: paying our debts (Anselm and Julian of Norwich)
11. Reconciliation: bringing us home (Karl Barth)
12. Messiah: Prophet, Priest, and King (Calvin and Barth)
In the last class I tried to draw together some of the key points in a list of simple "grammatical rules" for talking about Jesus Christ. I'm sure I've missed some important points, but here are the twelve rules I came up with. Each is a negation followed by an affirmation:

1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly human.

2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.

3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.

4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.

5. Not to divide redemption from creation, or to give the impression that Christ invades a world that is alien to him. Human beings were created after the pattern of the same eternal Image that has become incarnate in Jesus.

6. Not to divide Christ’s person and work, or to give the impression that Christ is merely the instrument by which God achieves salvation. Salvation is a person: Jesus Christ.

7. Not to divide Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, or to give the impression that he achieves salvation at just one moment of his career. The total life-journey of Jesus Christ – from his birth, to his ministry of teaching and healing, to his death and resurrection – is the saving event.

8. Not to speak of Christ’s death as a mere preliminary stage on the way to resurrection. Jesus Christ is the Priest whose death abolishes the power of sin and death. He is the humble God.

9. Not to speak of Christ’s resurrection as a mere reversal of his death. Jesus Christ is the King whose resurrection exalts and glorifies human nature. He is the deified human.

10. Not to speak of Christ in any way that implies that he is absent, or to give the impression that the church’s task is to make Christ present. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who reveals himself. He is present always and everywhere as the divine-human light of the world.

11. Not to divide Christ from Israel’s history, or to give the impression that the New Testament abolishes the Old. As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ is the surpassing fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.

12. Not to speak of Christ as if he were relevant only to some people in some cultures and circumstances. Jesus Christ is present to all people, in all times and places, as their divine-human Prophet, Priest and King. The church trusts and proclaims, but never possesses, this Messiah.

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