Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Monday, 13 May 2013
Though Gareth and Kim did not know each other well, it was Gareth’s wish that Kim take his funeral, which took place on May 7th at Tabernacle United Reformed Church, Swansea. Professor David Howell gave the eulogy for his friend and colleague. Then Gareth’s wife Kath, herself a formidable teacher and writer, and his two children, Bethan, a university lecturer in English, and Matthew, a musician, paid wonderful tribute to Gareth as husband and father. Bethan (on clarinet) and Matthew (on violin) also played two pieces of music intimately connected to life with father. Then Kim preached the homily.
Dates and facts. Dates and facts. It’s time to move on from dates and facts. Gareth spent his professional life contending against the Gradgrindian – and, alas, Govean – notion that history is reducible to dates and facts. Dates and facts are just data. Things only begin to get interesting, and the real work of the historian only begins, with the conversion of dates and facts into evidence, and the deployment of evidence in the intellectual venture of reconstruction and interpretation, which while partial and provisional might just turn out to be “true”. Why study history? “There are only two good reasons,” observes Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: “to enhance life and prepare for death.”
Friday, 10 May 2013
Bonhoeffer spent much of his life opposing leadership. When Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer was one of the first voices in Germany to urge for caution. Just two days after Hitler’s installation, 26-year-old Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Leader [Führer].” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that leadership is a normal and necessary part of life. “Naturally, there have always been leaders. Where there is community there is leadership.” But he argued that the concept of political leadership had been transformed in modern Germany; the German Youth Movement had dangerously projected all its longings and aspirations on to the concept of the Leader. Thus, Bonhoeffer said, “the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of leader that we see today.” Authentic leadership, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is the administration of an objective office. “The leader points to the office.” Where political leadership fuses with quasi-religious functions – giving people hope, investing their lives with meaning, awakening their spiritual yearnings – it becomes a dangerous and potentially unlimited power. Leadership becomes “personal and not objective.” In such circumstances, the leader (Führer) can very easily become the misleader (Verführer) – not so much because of anything innately bad in the leader, but because of the powerful illusory longings projected on to the leader. As a sort of definition of authentic leadership, Bonhoeffer remarks: “The true leader must always be able to disappoint.” Though the radio address was cut off before it finished, Bonhoeffer’s text concluded with the somber warning that all leaders are only “penultimate authorities” under the authority of God; the “leader and office that turn themselves into gods mock God.”
In the years that followed, Bonhoeffer applied his critique of political leadership to the question of leadership in Christian communities. In the 1933 Bethel Confession, drafted by Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse, the nature of Christian ministry is defined in explicit contrast to leadership. “The power of the ministry,” the confession states, does not depend “on the powers with which a human soul may be gifted.” Hence “we … protest against the attempt to apply the modern leadership principle to the preaching ministry.” Christian ministry, as “service to the Word,” is indeed “the opposite of any magical powers of leadership.” Here the point seems to be that Christian ministry consists in responsibility to an objective office and an objective word that God has given; it does not depend on influence, charisma, or what Bonhoeffer elsewhere called the “melting together” of souls.
Thursday, 9 May 2013
Eight decades later, Bonhoeffer’s dark warnings about the dangers of leadership sound eccentric to a culture marked by a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for leadership, charisma, and influence. The current neglect of a more cautionary perspective on leadership is hard to account for, given that the greatest and most charismatic leaders of the past century have also been responsible for the greatest wickedness. Bonhoeffer’s warnings – written before the beginning of the Second World War – sound today like prophecies. His critical perspective on leadership, informed by Protestant tradition and by keen observation of the political culture of 1930s Germany, remains a prophetic challenge to any account in which leadership as such is regarded as an unequivocal or unambiguous good. For Bonhoeffer, the good to which we ought to aspire is participation in an ordinary, flawed human community. What such a community needs is not vision or influence or psychological management, but “the one word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”
Friday, 3 May 2013
Yet the paradox of Falstaff is that he is not the kind of person we would ordinarily like. The great challenge of performing Falstaff on stage is to portray a character who is at once morally reprehensible and irresistibly loveable. Falstaff cannot be a villain; he cannot be a mere rogue; he cannot be a clown; he cannot be (not for a second) a tragic figure. We have to feel huge revulsion and huge love all at the same time, and for all the same reasons.
John Bell's performance of Falstaff in the Bell Shakespeare production of Henry 4 is a triumph, precisely because Bell's Falstaff is so repulsive and so loveable.
In Bell’s hands, Falstaff becomes a beer-bellied Australian bogan. He spends his time carousing on a set that seems a cross between a brothel and a backyard shed. He wears denim and leather with chains, a grungy biker. He slumps on a vinyl sofa with a hooker on his knee, swigging Jim Beam from the bottle. With his red nose, scraggly white beard, and twinkling eye, he looks for all the world like a degenerate Santa Claus.
And yet we love – no, we adore – that Falstaff.
What Falstaff represents is nothing more or less than life. Life itself, life as such, the sheer indomitable fact of being alive. That is why Falstaff is so fat. He is larger than life, more human and more alive than ordinary mortals. When Hal points out that the grave gapes for Falstaff “thrice wider than for other men,” it is true symbolically as well as literally. No ordinary grave could hold Jack Falstaff, for he is no ordinary mortal. He is large, he contains multitudes. When old Falstaff condescendingly tells the Lord Chief Justice, “You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young,” we feel the truth of it in our very bones. Falstaff's body might be “blasted with antiquity,” as the Chief Justice alleges, yet nobody is younger than he. He is young because he is youthfulness itself, the very energy and drive of life.
Yet in the final scene, a scene that has scandalised generations of playgoers and critics, Hal banishes his friend Jack Falstaff. Our minds recoil from the thought of it – even though, objectively speaking, Falstaff deserves whatever he gets. It is not just that we like Falstaff and want things to turn out well for him. It is that a rejection of Falstaff seems the same as a rejection of life – an incomprehensible, nonsensical act. As Falstaff himself has intimated, to reject him is to reject everything: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
But perhaps the point of this difficult scene is just to show that Falstaff can be rejected. For all his irresistible charm, it is still possible to turn him away. The significance of the last scene is that it makes comedy more vivid by revealing its limits. Falstaff can be banished; life can be refused. We'd never have believed it if we didn't see it played out before our eyes. When we see it happen, we are agitated. We are disquieted. We are moved. We are ready to rush to Falstaff’s defence. His rejection moves the audience to accept him all the more, to say Yes to life by saying Yes to sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff.
Falstaff’s banishment reveals something of the central mystery of his character. For all his irrepressible wit, for all his invincible ingenuity, for all his boundless capacity to extricate himself from difficulties, to catapult his corpulent person over every obstacle – for all that, there is a strange vulnerability at the core of Falstaff's being. There is, indeed, a sense in which he is the most elementally vulnerable character in the play, vulnerable in a way that reminds us of Shakespeare's great tragic figures.
Falstaff's invincibility, after all, really just lies in the way others open their hearts to him. He has – or is – “the spirit of persuasion.” We feel moved to love him even when we know he is bad. We find ourselves believing in him even when we know he is lying. To the extent that we cannot help but love him – to that extent, but no further – he is an impregnable castle. When Mistress Quickly accuses Falstaff before the Lord Chief Justice – “he hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his” – she ends her wild litany of accusations, in one of the finest moments of the Bell production, by running to Falstaff, embracing him, and sobbing the rest of her speech into his shoulder, while he comforts her forgivingly.
That is the form that every moral objection to Falstaff has to take. We begin, quite properly, by reproaching him, and end up embracing him and begging his forgiveness. When, earlier, Mistress Quickly berates Falstaff for evading his debts, he starts out on the defensive but ends with a triumphant show of magnanimity: “Hostess, I forgive thee. Go, make ready breakfast. Love thy husband, look to thy servants, cherish thy guests. Thou shalt find me tractable to any honest reason; thou seest I am pacified still. Nay, prithee, begone.”
Yet we are confronted, at the end of the story, with a person who knows Falstaff, understands him, loves him – and rejects him. This person has just become king. In Henry IV, it is power that refuses life by refusing Falstaff.
At the Bell Shakespeare production last night, we were scandalised by this monstrous wrongness, this insult against the human spirit, this denial of life and joy. Seething with indignation in our seats, we were compelled to make the better choice. We despised the king and all his pomp, and our hearts went out to Falstaff. To the extent that it opens our hearts to Falstaff, Henry IV is a deeply moral play – not a moralising play, God help us, but a grand hilarious demonstration of the absolute, unqualified, unbounded goodness of life. By moving us to say Yes to Falstaff, the play makes us participants in a moral world where life is more important than power and joy is stronger than death.
But if we prize power above joy, we will find prostitutes and tax collectors – yes, even old Jack Falstaff – entering the kingdom ahead of us. If, like Hal, we banish Falstaff from our hearts, we will wake up one day to discover that we have really only banished ourselves.
Monday, 29 April 2013
This Sunday, the sermon – will it be a sacrament of divine disclosure, or a sacrilege of self-deception? There is, of course, no guarantee. And that goes for the eucharist as well.
Last Saturday the theme of Swansea’s most confrontational city-centre evangelist was evolution. The earth, he shouted, is six-and-a-half thousand years old, so why would you believe a newfangled 19th century theory that says man is descended from monkeys? And I thought: what a prodigy of self-refutation: Ecce simius!
I think that we should look more to Cain than to Adam if we want to understand the phenomenology of original sin. Surely the fundamental primal feeling of human beings is not that I have done something wrong but that someone has done something wrong to me – and that I am owed. Hence our rebellion against grace and the challenge of a truly disinterested faith.
That God is a speaker, not a writer, is clear from Genesis 2:18. A writer can never get enough solitude.
“Religion is what one does with one’s solitude.” No, that’s masturbation. Alas, solitude is what people often do with their religion.
In his recent Assholes: A Theory (2013), Aaron James argues that the distinguishing features of the asshole are his entrenched sense of entitlement and his immunization from critique. Add American exceptionalism, and throw in the state of Texas or the city of New York, and the theory has extraordinary explanatory demographic power.
“The poor you will always have with you.” Yes, and the rich too. Not to mention the assholes (Jesus was, after all, responding to Judas in all his sense of self-importance).
Many US citizens seem to keep their baptismal certificates and their passports in the same drawer. The ones that have passports.
Grief, great grief, psalmist grief, pitched-past-pitch-of grief (Hopkins) – it is, literally, overwhelming. Not inner-whelming, it does not just well up, it crashes down with crushing force, dense with affliction. And because this weight drops extra nos, it can only be lifted or borne extra nos. Grief is death at work in the living. Only the one who has rolled away the stone can remove the burden of grief, or at least help us carry the load.
With one voice the British press proclaims that the death of Margaret Thatcher marks the “end of an error”. Or did I mishear?
“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” That’s Harry Frankfurt (in On Bullshit), perfectly articulating my thoughts on the apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher, as the commentariat took leave of its senses. But as an American living in the UK I have not been smug. Déjà vu: I happened to be in the US at the time of the funeral of Ronald Reagan.
Then there was Boston. Bombast and bomb-blast. It was a good week for the principalities and power. Btw, P + P were also observed in Washington hobnobbing with morally and mathematically challenged congressmen – 3 bomb-dead is .0001% of 30,000 annual gun-dead. Finally (barely worth a parenthesis, I know), on the day of the Boston bombing, over 30 people were killed in car-bombings in Iraq.
In Alice Sebald’s The Lovely Bones, the heroine Susie Salmon says, “There wasn’t a lot of bullshit in my heaven.” See I Corinthians 2:9.
The events in a graveyard just outside Jerusalem around 30 CE explain why Christ is Lord of the dance – and the origins of rock-and-roll.
Many thanks to Jason Goroncy at Per Crucem ad Lucem for his heads-up post on David Lipsey’s new biography (and long-awaited retrieval) of Dag Hammarskjöld, Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life, in which he refers to Rowan Williams’ review of the book. Williams mentions Lipsey’s judicious treatment of the issue of Hammarskjöld’s homosexuality. Conclusion: Hammarskjöld might have been gay; on the other hand, he might have been “that most alarming of sexual deviants in twenty-first century eyes, a willing and self-aware celibate.” So much for the old saying that to a Hammarskjöld everything looks like a Niels.
That God might be angry with me doesn’t move me to repentance, but that God might be disappointed with me, even ashamed of me, above all, that he might be saddened, even hurt by me – Dad, I’m so sorry!
There are prayers of praise and petition, prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, prayers of confession and commitment. Big prayers, fine prayers. But God is our friend as well as our Lord, so don’t forget the small-talk, just shooting the breeze (πνεύμα).
The wise know when and when not to give a shit.
Very few people know what the hell they are doing, but staying with that thought for very long is a sure way to paralysis and madness.
He had the kind of OCP that when you met him on the street and said, “Hi. Nice day, isn’t it? How are you?”, he would answer with meteorological and medical reports including temperatures, pressures, and prognostications.
That the good are often worse – much worse – than the bad is rather evident from the gospels. After all, it was a cabal of pastors and politicians, not publicans and prostitutes, that conspired to kill Jesus. Which is why I take Luke 5:32 to be one of our Lord’s more ironic statements.
In Luke, Jesus dies the serene death of the proto-martyr. In John, Jesus dies with an exclamation of conclusive triumph. And many apologists place the cry of dereliction in Mark and Matthew in the context of the affirmative ending of Psalm 22 (a truly Christological hermeneutic would reverse the framing). No, Jesus dies with a woeful wail in absolute despair, identifying with our own experiences of God-forsakenness, precisely so that utter hopelessness henceforth becomes an impossible possibility. And God is silent – until Sunday. The unassumed is the unhealed.
Here is the difference between envy and jealousy: I am envious of the dead; I am jealous of the living.
Why, when I visit people with severe dementia, do I feel that I should take off my shoes? Why this sense of the holy, of the divine presence? (Which, I suggest, makes sense of the world’s strategic way of dealing with the aged-demented by clinical ostracism and senicide: it materially focusses the marginalisation and death of God.) It can’t be just their helplessness and powerlessness, a diminishment they share with the gravely frail and disabled. No, I think it is the fact that they simply are, that they live in a kind of eternal now. Does that make sense?
I turn 65 in October and become a pensioner. Several colleagues have spoken to me about the difficulties of retirement, particularly their manifold feelings of dislocation and loss – the painful withdrawals from their intimate family of faith, from their role as local leader, and from their sense of pastoral neededness. So I will no longer be the Reverend Fabricius, I’ll just be Kim. In fact, however, that’s all I’ve ever been – just Kim. No, the real angst of retirement is that it prefigures your expirement. It is the vocation of ministers to teach the art of dying. Physician, heal thyself.
Thursday, 18 April 2013
And for one big glad moment I believed everything, Christ's dying and rising, the truest thing that ever happened, I believed it all and saw the truth of it as clear as water, saw it right there written on your face, written all over your baptised body.
Friday, 12 April 2013
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
For the King is in residence there.
But there's a problem. God arrives, suitcase in hand, and knocks on the door of our heart. And he can hardly fit inside. The place is too small. And it's a mess, a ruin, a veritable pigsty. Yet God isn't deterred. God wants to live here: the place has a lot of promise; and besides, God likes the neighbourhood. So there's only one for it: God rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.
Monday, 8 April 2013
Sometimes someone will say to me after a service, “That sermon really made us think.” Which vexes me because it suggests, first, that some Christians have to be made to think, and second, that the church is some kind of discussion group. They shouldn’t and it’s not.
I’ve preached people into my church and I’ve preached people out of it. I’ve no doubt which were the better sermons.
A woman once asked me why I never preach on taking Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. “Because, ma’am, I preach on the Bible.”
So you’ve taken Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. Where? Bowling?
I’m all for being born again, as long as it’s again and again … and again. Otherwise, I’m for rebirth control.
Any preacher who brandishes a book and declares “God says …!” can only be waving the Qur’an, not the Bible.
Paul – great writer, lousy speaker (II Corinthians 10:10, 11:6): i.e., better read than said.
Some evangelists put notches in their Bible the way gunslingers put notches in their Colt 45. Indeed for some evangelists their Bible is their Colt 45. Come to think of it, vice versa too.
He was one of those haunted, hunted Christians who, I imagine, when he was four or five, saw a picture of the crucifixion, asked his parents why this man looks so unhappy, and was told, “Because of you!”
What is the difference between evangelism and proselytism? That’s easy. Proselytism has no ears, it’s all mouth. Some Christians speak of evangelism and dialogue, or even pit the former against the latter. No! Evangelism is intrinsically dialogical, or it is – exactly! – proselytism.
How powerful is the love of God? So powerful that it can do absolutely nothing to protect us.
Word-care is only half the battle – and the second half. Ear-care comes first.
Christianity is small in the UK, BIG in the US. That is partially because the secularisation thesis has purchase in the UK in a way that it doesn’t in the US – yet. But it’s also because American religious space contains such influential church leaders as Osteen, Dobson, Driscoll, Warren, and Piper, and such hot button theological issues as creationism, the historical Adam, complementarianism, premillennialism, and eternal damnation. (One issue, really: biblical inerrancy.) Compared to such cyclopean religion, small is beautiful.
It is true that, for church or society, sexuality cannot be a purely private matter, but it is a shame the way it dominates debate in the pubic square.
Sometimes when talking ecumenism with Catholics (“My way or the highway” – the Via Appia – heading southeast), I think, “When in Rome, do as the Visigoths”.
The History Channel’s The Bible is not a docudrama. It is not even a documelodrama. It is a docusoap, so embarrassingly awful that cardboard cut-outs would deepen the characterisation and speech balloons would improve the dialogue. When will the doyens of evangelical culture learn that crap religious painting, poetry, music – and film – do the faith no favours. Indeed, it would seem that the more “called” and “inspired” the creators feel, the tackier their productions. It takes a Pasolini (gay and atheist) or a Monty Python (satirists, parodists) to make a good film on a religious theme; and, ironically, it is kitsch like The Bible that is an insult to the Lord.
In Jesus God takes time to have a word with us.
The difference between a charlatan and a sage is that the one speaks imperiously about truth, the other speaks modestly about truthfulness.
People mainly leave the church for one of two reasons: it’s either the assholes or the problem of suffering. And I always think: What’s taken you so long?
Faith without works or works without faith? Hmm… I’ll take the latter: I may still be sinful (Romans 14:23), but at least I’m still alive (James 2:20).
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Hmm… Often used at meetings, as an introduction to an intervention, a kind of biblical “With respect …” But it’s not the pretence of affection that concerns me. Indeed the more genuine the affection, the more I get nervous, lest it lead me to drop my guard when it comes to the “truth”. After all, Job’s friends were utterly sincere in their companionate compassion – and then they spoke theology so pernicious that it pissed off not only their mate but the Lord himself. Only then, after Job refuses to play ball, do they get nasty.
The book of Job is not a theodicy, it is (a) an exercise in theological bullshit detection, and (b) a theological therapeutics, the divine healing of the suffering ego incurvatus in se by exocentric expansion, first in solidarity with the poor, then in wonder at the universe.
In 2004, the Philosophy Department at Swansea University, once world renown as a Centre of Wittgenstein studies, was terminated (Wittgenstein’s “full stop” with a vengeance). Last summer, the front of the main administrative building, Fulton House, was renovated (it now looks like a mini mall, with the Chaplaincy Centre cunningly reshituated between the men’s and women’s toilets). Last September, the University launched its £200 million second campus expansion plan (called the “Humanities and Other Useless Knowledge Campus” – just kidding: the “Science and Innovation Campus” – what else?). And now, at the end of April, the University Bookshop will sell its last tome and textbook (a university without a bookstore, for Chrissake!). Instead of publishing an Annual Report this year, the University Council should write a suicide note.
The trick is to walk on your knees and pray on your feet.
We are most at worship when we are not at worship.
Friday, 5 April 2013
You guessed it: they each have an upcoming conference.
In May, the University of Geneva is hosting a conference on The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: Reconsidering 1 Corinthians 1-2.
In June, Princeton Seminary is hosting a conference on Karl Barth in Dialogue: Encounters with Major Figures.
In July, the Australasian Centre for Wesleyan Research is hosting a conference in Sydney on Holy Trinity – Holy People.
Also in July, there will be a conference in Heidelberg to mark the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism: Our Only Comfort.
Any other interesting conferences on the horizon?