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.

Monday, 20 October 2014

What's in a name? On scholars who study their eponyms

Prophecy? Coincidence? Firm parenting? Whatever the explanation, it's intriguing that some scholars happen to share the name of their area of expertise. Two of the most distinguished experts on George Herbert's poetry were named after him: Herbert Grierson and George Herbert Palmer. (Confusingly, the famous pragmatist George Herbert Mead also studied under George Herbert Palmer; it was a great period for George Herberts of every stripe.)

I often feel a certain mystical chill when I reflect that one of our leading scholars of Christian mysticism bears the name of Denys Turner. And it is sobering to contemplate the number of theologians who have been christened under the portentous names of Calvin and Anselm. Consult the library catalogue if you don't believe me.

In some instances, of course, a scholar's name was given not at baptism but at ordination. That makes it easier to understand why so many patristic scholars are experts on their eponymns. Many a Maximus and a Gregory and a Cyril can be explained on these grounds. The Irenaeus scholar Irenaeus Steenberg belongs to this class. I am less certain about the Augustinian scholar Augustine Curley. One can only assume that the patristic scholar Polycarp Sherwood is in this class too, since few indeed are the mothers who, upon first sight of their newborn offspring, pronounce in joyous recognition the name of Polycarp.

But the most theological name of all time would have to go to the Reformed church historian whose three names were eponymous with a Reformation theologian, a patristic theologian, and the first person of the Trinity. I refer to Calvin Augustine Pater – a gentleman who also studied at Calvin College and then taught, for good measure, at a place called Knox College.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Apostles' Creed in limericks

by Kim Fabricius

I believe in the Father, Creator
of nice things like pets and potaters;
as for floods, flags, and fleas
and all sorts disease –
yuk, theodicy sooner or later.

I believe in the Christ, Lord and Son,
whose conception was second to none,
for the Spirit had plans
to omit Mary’s man –
so, alas, for poor Joseph, no fun.

I believe in the Lord’s execution,
after torture by state Lilliputians;
and a grievous descent
to a place of lament
that was emptied without retribution.

I believe in the Lord’s resurrection,
as physical as an erection;
he returned to the stars
with his bruises and scars
to portray a new kind of perfection.

I believe in his coming as Judge,
not to raise hell or settle a grudge,
but to reconcile all,
even those who will bawl,
“What, no violence? A liberal fudge!”

I believe in the Spirit and kirk,
(though the latter can be quite a jerk);
and forgiveness – it’s free,
(says the church, with a smile – or a smirk?).

To conclude: the communion of saints:
I’m unsure what it is; but it ain’t
only Christians like you
who believe as you do –  
like the Lord’s under creedal constraint?

Oops, life – Life! – I almost forgot.
What’s it like? Well, I’ll give it a shot:
it’s like visions of Blake,
it’s like ice cream and cake –
it’s a lot, and a lot, and a lot …

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Ten beads: protestant meditations on the Ave Maria

Hail Mary
Forgive me, Mary, if I do not hail you as Queen of Heaven, if I hesitate to praise you as Mediatrix or salute you as Co-Redemptrix. Allow me to greet you humbly by the humble name your mother gave you. Mary, a peasant child. A poor girl from a little village. Mary, in whom the joy of heaven came down to dwell. Mary, the little hinge on which the hopes of all the ages turn. I greet you, Mary! If I do not adore your perpetual virginity, I will instead contemplate your perpetual humility, for all riches were laid up in your poverty. If I do not venerate your immaculate conception, I will strive nonetheless to imitate your immaculate fidelity, for through your faith the knot of human faithlessness has been undone.

Full of grace
I believe – I try to believe – in grace. I hope for it. I look for it like watchmen for the morning. I stake my life on something that has never appeared to me. A grace that is always, like my death, just out of reach – near, far, approaching, never yet. I believe, or hope, that grace is coming for me. I believe because I do not know. I believe because I have not seen. But you, Mary, have seen grace and have known it in your body. In you grace became flesh. The grace you knew was as real as a baby's kicks, as real as blood and birth. Even when I cannot quite believe in grace for myself, I will believe in grace for you. Even when grace is hidden from me, I will believe that you have known it, that all the grace the world will ever need has dwelt in you.

The Lord is with thee
I greet you, Mary, with love for you who bore the one I love. He is with me only because he was with you. He wears my nature because he clothed himself in yours.

Blessed art thou amongst women
For as long as men have had the power of speech they have brought curses and laid them at the feet of women (the women they love). God started it, acting like a man that day, cursing Eve and all her daughters. I have cursed a few myself. Forgive me, Mary, but I too am a man, a son of Adam. To curse a woman is as natural to me as making love. Sometimes the two things are the same. But man and woman are blessed in you as at their first creation. In you the sabbath comes again: the maker’s blessing: rest.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
Your body is the little door through which God stooped to enter the small house of my life. God sought me out and found me. Because I could not find the way to God, God sought and found you, Mary, and through you came to visit me in my grief.

Holy Mary
O Mary, the world has been profaned before my eyes. I had ceased to believe that sanctity was possible. I had ceased to believe that anything was holy. I am sorry, Mary, but I am more than twice your age when you conceived, and all the holiness I ever knew as a child has been worn out by time. Yet a holy flame burns in your mind, and the whole world's darkness is defenceless before one light. Mary, I will call you holy in hope for the day when all things will be sanctified, when all minds will be light and not darkness. Until then, I will follow the small flame of your life that leads me to your Son.

Mother of God
Your womb, Mary, nourished in silence the Word that nourishes all worlds. From your blood God took blood into his veins, from your flesh he took flesh. God came forth looking just like you, your spitting image, with the blood of all your ancestors running in his veins.

Pray for us sinners
Pray for me, Mary. Not because your Son is deaf to my cries but because he hears so well. Because each cry of mine echoes yours, you who brought God crying into the world and watched him grow and treasured all these things within your heart. You who stood by at the hour of his passion, broken by the grief of all the world laid on him. You whom he called woman. Your heart was broken by him first. Let the cry of my heart ascend, mingled with yours, to your God and mine.

Now and at the hour of our death
At the hour of your Son’s passion you looked into the face you loved and saw the union of love and death written there – God’s love, the whole world’s death. You who have seen the secret of my dying, pray for me now. Now in the hour of my grief. Now when death's shadow lies across my heart. May the mystery of my dying be made clear in the light of your Son, the only one who ever truly died because he truly (ever) lived.

If ever your Son should forget me, Mary, take his hand and place it on your abdomen and remind him that he once dwelt there, bearing your flesh (my flesh), your blood (and mine), a stranger no more to grief (my grief and yours). Remind him, holy Mary, that in your body God has already said the one Amen to every human prayer.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Ding-dong doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

It’s impossible to change the past; to change the future can be even harder.

Physically, death is certain; spiritually, certainty is death.

A minister is something of a jack-of-all-trades – without the skills.

Yes, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14; cf. Galatians 3:27). Just don’t expect him to fit, being at once too large and too tight for comfort.

Jesus said, “Where two are three are gathered together in my name, there is the C of E in 50 years.”

How can anyone read the Bible without a deep and dreadful sense of discombobulation? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask an inerrantist. The Bible is like the Great Boyg in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – a wild, sprawling, inscrutable, immovable, monster – except that the Boyg, unlike the Bible, finally capitulates.

As ministers merely lead worship, on retirement I was looking forward to actually worshipping. The transition, however, has not been easy. I still often feel like a liturgical inspector and homiletical critic. So-so sermons I expected, but who’d have thought you could screw up a eucharist? Hey- ho, I suspect that even in heaven I’ll be fidgeting in my seat, harrumphing at the elders and angels, and checking my watch, waiting for the service to end. Except that it won’t, will it? Still, for music, at least, there’ll be Handel, not (Lord, have mercy!) Hillsong.

Last Sunday in church we sang a song which went: “Worthy is the Lamb x 4 / Holy is the Lamb x 4 / Precious is … / Praises to … / Glory to … / Jesus is …” So addled was my brain when we reached the 24th line that I continued silently singing: “Little … / Woolly … / Grazing… / Roasted … / Tender … / Mint-sauced …”

Faith can be a wonderful blessing, and a terrible burden; something to be enjoyed, and something to be endured. Alas, some churches are like banks: in profit you are good for business, but in loss you are bad for morale in their lament-free zones.

Whenever I turn to Augustine’s Confessions, I always feel slightly embarrassed – an appropriate disposition, I think, for what is, after all, a love letter.

What was God doing before he created the world? Yes, “preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries” is a “frivolous retort”; rather, as Augustine continues, the question itself is unintelligible, based on the failure to realise that time, with its before and after, only comes into existence with creation (Confessions, XI, 12-13). Which is true, but prevaricating. Look at the world: it’s a shambles. What was God doing before he created the world? Surely getting drunk.

Which reminds me … My dad was an eminent architect, a VIP in the Raymond Loewy Corporation, specialising in department stores. He would often take clients to lunch, including liquid, of course, which for my father meant a very dry gin martini – or two … Then back to the drafting board. Which leads me to advise: check your life insurance policy before shopping at Lord and Taylor.

In a coffee shop, observing a family of five, each absorbed in their iPhone or iPad (or whatever the fuck they’re called), an old friend of mine opined, “The end of civilisation.” Were he not Welsh, I would have corrected him: “You’re over 40 years too late. The end of civilisation occurred in 1973 – with the advent of the Designated Hitter.”

And now baseball players in camouflage jerseys: “You will see ‘The Awful Horror’ standing in the place where he should not be” (Mark 13:14). Truly, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” (Yeats, “The Second Coming”).

Speaking of soldiers … If it is trained like a soldier, dresses like a soldier, fights wars (on crime, drugs, etc.) like a soldier, and then pisses on protest like a soldier, it’s probably a soldier. As for any charm offensive by the Ministry of Truth on the militarization of so-called “peace” officers, it’s like – what’s the expression? – “putting lipstick on a pig”.

Still on point: it’s good to see American police forces honouring their European roots – as municipal armies of nascent, born-to-kill nation-states.

Fox News is not the channel of hate and lies, it is the channel of capital – but nothing sells like hate and lies. Is the salvation of Fox News in doubt? Of course not: its damnation is certain.

What is the visible essence of sin? Violence. The first biblical narrative set in our world is the story of violence, murder. What is the visible essence of sinlessness? Nonviolence. The sinlessness of Jesus is evident precisely in the narrative of his nonviolence, culminating in his murder. Interestingly, sinlessness and nonviolence are both negatives, elements (you might say) of an apophatic Christology.

Forget the inconclusive proof-texting, the acrimonious theological jousting, and the philosophical argy-bargy, the best way to disabuse the hard-core Calvinist of the decretum horribilis is parenthood. Only a devil could look into the eyes of his child and think, “Precious, you might, in fact, be damned.” Of course, the condition of the Arminian is little better: “Honey, you might yet be damned.”

“The Lord God said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s home, and go to a land that I am going to show you. I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing.’ And Abram said, ‘Sounds like a plan.’ And the Lord God said, ‘Plan C, actually, Abe. And if it doesn’t work out, meh: the alphabet is very long’” (Genesis 12:1ff., Original Autograph).

Speaking of plans … You know the old saying, “What makes God laugh? Tell him your plans”? Well, you know what makes me laugh? God telling us his plans. I mean, you gotta be kidding.

The results of fashionable facial cosmetic surgery – I know I’ve seen that look somewhere before … That’s it! – some of Picasso’s cubist portraits, say, The Weeping Woman. Aesthetic refigurement reiterated as plastic disfigurement.

So a 9-year-old girl accidently kills her shooting instructor while being shown how to fire an Uzi. I guess either the complementarians are right – bullets for boys, Barbies for girls – or we’ve got to start teaching all our kids how to use assault weapons by the age of 6.

Suggesting that authentic presidential leadership requires "play acting sometimes", David Usborne would have Obama "Look more outraged" about the ISIS atrocities; "It will make us feel better," he avers (4 September). Ah, yes, like during those golden global years of the ab fab Ronald Reagan. —Unpublished letter to the British daily the i

A masked executioner – he is horrifying and detestable. That is why, in our mind’s eye, we must unmask him, envisage him, lest fear and hatred overwhelm us, and in demonising him we dehumanise ourselves and add to the wreckage of atrocity.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The psalms and the blues: a little help from James Baldwin

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin makes a characteristically perceptive and acerbic comment about the tradition of African American songs:
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing, "I Feel So Good." … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes.
A similar misunderstanding lies beneath the current academic hypersensitivity to the morality of the psalms. If we think the happy psalms are merely happy and the sad psalms are merely sad, then we'll also assume that the psalms of vengeance are merely immoral and vindictive, or that psalms of conquest are mere glorifications of military violence – without seeing the whole tragic history that gives rise to such outrageously tenacious expressions of faith. Perhaps we'd have a better ear for the psalms if we remembered that they are the precursors not so much of Victorian hymnody as of the spirituals and the blues. One catches the true spirit of the psalter in the old African American song:
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory hallelujah!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Church attendance manual (3): "Please be seated"

When attending church, it is important to understand that certain seemingly familiar liturgical instructions can have different shades of meaning in different traditions. The instruction, please be seated, is one of the most common yet also most easily understood of all liturgical formulae. You will be spared a great deal of confusion and embarrassment if you observe these guidelines when attending a service of worship in one of the following liturgical settings. Please be seated means:

Mainline protestant
Please stop standing and sit down.

Please stop kneeling and sit up.

Please stop lying on the floor and return to your seats.

Please come down from the rafters and return to your seats.

Tent revival
Now that you all have Jesus in your hearts, you may leave the altar and return to your seats.

Once you've stopped chatting among yourselves, please feel free to find a seat. Whenever you're ready, folks, whenever you're ready...

A cruel joke (there are no seats).

Fresh expressions
An ironic joke (there are nothing but seats).

Oops. I can't believe I just said that out loud.

What an insensitive thing to say. Words like this simply perpetuate cultural stereotypes and the hegemony of able-bodied discourse. The congregation's constant uncertainty about whether to stand or sit is a small price to pay for our moral superiority.
Inner city mission
For pity's sake, Johnno, could you please stop heckling the preacher and sit down!

Rural parish
You can both sit down now.

School chapel
That's my final warning, boys.

Sunday school
Oh hell – they're starting to riot – oh hell – I've completely lost control

Friday, 19 September 2014

Lord of the loo: a sermon on Graham Greene

A sermon by Kim Fabricius
Without doubt, one of the greatest 20th century novelists writing in English was Graham Greene. He was also one of the most popular: his prose was lucid, his plots were gripping, and as a “writer who happened to be Catholic” (he hated the term “Catholic writer”), he wrote compellingly about the human condition with theological insight as well as psychological depth, exploring the perennial themes of good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt.

One of my favourite Greene novels is Monsignor Quixote, published in 1982 (I read it during my first month as a minister). Called “a fable for our times”, it’s an affectionate pastiche of Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote. It describes the exploits of a small-town priest, unexpectedly made a monsignor by the Pope (“what strange stirring of the Holy Spirit,” observes his resentful bishop), as he travels around Spain in his Seat 600, tilting at windmills, accompanied by his ex-mayor friend nicknamed “Sancho” (what else!), who happens to be a communist. As you might imagine, their conversations are, well, interesting, as the churchman and the atheist not only argue but are forced to re-examine their own beliefs.

One of the funniest scenes in the novel finds Father Quixote in a pub toilet with a man who wants to make his confession. “Never before had he heard a confession in such surroundings. He had always been seated in that box like a coffin … [So] It was almost automatically that he took refuge in the only box available and sat down on a closed lavatory.” It turns out that the man is an undertaker who has stolen the brass handles off the coffin in which he had buried a priest that morning.

“Father Quixote thought: How many times I have felt guilty as he does without knowing why. Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules.… Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling.… He said, ‘Don’t worry about such little things. Go home and have a good sleep. Perhaps you have stolen.… Do you think God cares so much about such a small thing like that? He has created a universe.… You have stolen two brass handles – don’t feel so important. Say you are sorry for your pride and go home.’”

Then the priest goes back to the bar. “What on earth have you been up to?” asks Sancho. “Practicing my profession,” Quixote replies. “In a lavatory?” “In a lavatory, in a prison, in a church. What’s the difference?”

Good question: What’s the difference? Is there any? Is a confessional holier than a khazi? What, indeed, is “holiness”?

In the Bible, one opposite of holy is “unclean” – like a lavatory. The Pharisees in particular were sticklers about “purity”, moral as well as ritual. They had a defensive notion of sanctity: pollution is contagious. Contact with the visibly sick and the obviously immoral – with lepers, for example, or “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) – no way! Don’t touch, don’t talk, keep your distance! Hence the fastidiousness and the fearfulness of their faith. Jesus, by contrast, had an offensive notion of sanctity: it is not stain or sin but goodness – but grace – that is catching. Hence the robustness and the fearlessness of his own faith.

The Reformer Marin Luther also had this bold and feisty faith. He once wrote to an uptight upright colleague (Philip Melanchton): “Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, joke, even commit sin in defiance and contempt of the devil, in order not to give him the opportunity to make us scrupulous about small things.” Yet does not being “scrupulous about small things” – Father Quixote’s “little thing[s]” – doesn’t this sum-up the nit-picking piety of so much church culture, so fussy, prudish, mischiefless, so downright boring – and so obstructive to mission? You’ve heard of “born-again” Christianity: this is “yawn-again” Christianity.

What is holiness? Can God be found in a lavatory? How interesting that Luther claimed that his own theological breakthrough – justification by faith alone – came to him – you guessed it – in the WC! God is Lord – Lord of the loo too!

Perhaps, then, punctilious notions of purity and probity have little to do with real holiness, the offensive holiness of Jesus. Perhaps in focussing on little sins we miss the big ones, the weightier matters of justice, the weightiest matter of grace. Perhaps such a focus leads to defensive strategies of exclusion, as contemporary Pharisees police the borders of the church to keep out “the unclean” and “the unsound”. Perhaps what we often take to be beyond the moral or doctrinal pale has less to do with God’s righteousness and more to do with our own pathologies of rectitude. Indeed one reviewer of Monsignor Quixote (Robert Towers) suggests that “The rejection of [all] dogmatic authority … is the presiding theme of the book.” Not quite: for ultimately the novel’s “presiding theme” is the kindness of God, incarnate in weakness and doubt, in this hapless little priest, yet counter-intuitively triumphant over the malice and corruption of Grand Inquisitors in church and state alike.

Monsignor Quixote will die from wounds received when, shot at by two Guardia, his little Seat crashes. Yet his atheist friend will muse that “the love he had begun to feel for Father Quixote seemed now to live in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long he wondered, with a kind of fear …?” With a kind of faith, be it the size of a mustard seed, we may answer: forever. For God is love, incarnate in Christ, stronger than death, and, yes, eternal.

New book



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