Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Election day doodlings

The trick to ending a sermon is to stop without concluding. Paul Valéry observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” So too a sermon.

Why did God give us clothes? Not to inhibit the sex-drive. (Fat chance!) No, but so that we should think. Or haven’t you noticed that it’s almost impossible to cogitate in the nude?

God said, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?” The man answered, “The woman you put here with me gave me the fruit. She doesn’t understand me” (Genesis 3:11b-12, Original Autograph).

I was all for “True Love Waits” until I realised – silly me – that it isn’t an album by the dude whose voice has been described as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car” (Daniel Durchholz).

At first, grief is like an occupying army. Then it slowly begins to withdraw its troops, but it always leaves some commandos behind. And though the numbers continue to dwindle, you’re never safe: there is always the chance of an ambush.

“If I can be saved, there is no one beyond redemption.” I have said it myself. Alas, yet another instance of egotism masquerading as humility.

We act like we are the directors of our petits récits when in fact we are just the actors – actors who have forgotten our lines and aren’t very good at improvising.

My waking nightmare: the US has turned into Jurassic Park and its people are being terrorised by a Trumpasaurus Wrecks.

The relationship between Donald Trump and women can be put in terms of General relativity: Trump tells women how to curve, women tell Trump where to go.

Asked about the fulsome endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the Donald replied, “It’s great to have the support of the distinguished president of Libertine University.”

Asked to name his favourite passages from the Bible, Trump said, “It’s a toss-up between Genesis 34 and Judges 19. Both have been an inspiration.”

Desperate for a song to spearhead his campaign and market his character during the final few weeks before the election, the Donald is going for a classic from the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature: “Lay, Lady, Lay”.

Why does Trump want to be president? I used to think it was the narcissism of power. Now add the sex: he thinks he’ll get laid more. In a Trump White House the Blue Room will be known for its films rather than its receptions, while the Green Room will be repainted and renamed the Shades of Grey Room.

A big fan of the first two amendments, Trump is not so keen on the first two commandments. Or #s 3, 4, 7, 8, or 9 for that matter. And I suspect he thinks #6 is a bloody nuisance, written for losers. I will, however, give the brat #5.

I’ve not long returned from visiting my mum in New York. What a grotesque spectacle it was observing the sulphurous figure of Trump smirking and strutting while his minders appeared on news programmes assiduously trying to polish a turd.

The most salient feature of this presidential election is anger. There is, to be sure, a godly anger, imbued with sorrow and sympathy. Like the anger of the prophets. Like the anger of Jesus. But the anger in America is proud and pitiless. It is an anger unto death.

Why have white male evangelicals been flocking to a wolf? Apart from the moral paranoia, camp revivalism, American exceptionalism, and smug misogyny, it’s because Trump incarnates a realised eschatology of wrath and damnation.

Evangelical leaders who, while conceding his egregious flaws, support Trump are fond of citing Augustine, as if the bishop of Hippo had declared (in Letter 211): “Cum delectione hominum et odio vitiorum – et suffragio assholum” (“Hate the sin, love the sinner – and vote for the asshole”).

Don’t think for a minute that Trump is stupid. He’s pig ignorant, but snake smart.

The Trump campaign and the coulrophobia epidemic – a coincidence?

Trump scares me, but it’s Trumpism, embodied in the 40%, that terrifies me: the spectre of the normalising of the campaign into a movement, a demonic parody of a martyr’s blood becoming the seed of a church.

Some Christians seem to think that Jesus said the truth will set you free to lie.

Elections are certainly revelatory of the worm at the core, as the voter asks the first question Adam put to his creator: “What’s in it for me?”

In Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, as Quoyle turns the car into a sodden road heading towards his ancestral home in East Jesus, Newfoundland, his daughter Bunny kicks the back of the seat and cries, “I’m tired of going somewhere. I want to be there.” My timeworn thoughts exactly, honey. “I want to put on my bathing suit and play on the beach,” Bunny adds. Perfect.

What’s the difference between optimism and hope? Optimism is for sissies.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Michael Gorman in Manchester: The Didsbury Lectures

Michael Gorman is in Manchester this week, delivering the annual Didsbury Lectures on "Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John."

You can watch a live webcast of the lectures here. The first lecture is tonight, at 7:30pm BST.

Or, if you're in the North West of England, just come on over to Didsbury and join us at Nazarene Theological College.

This lecture series has been running since 1979, and is published by Cascade Books. If you missed Frances Young's invigorating 2014 lectures on the atonement, you can also watch them at the link above, or buy the book.

Monday, 26 September 2016

30 novels Christians should read for a faith check before they turn 30

  • Voltaire, Candide (1759)
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)
  • Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895)
  • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  • Franz Kafka, The Castle (1926)
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (1947)
  • Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
  • Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  • Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
  • Peter de Vries, The Blood of the Lamb (1961)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • William Golding, The Spire (1964)
  • Sushaku Endo, Silence (1966)
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)
  • Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • José Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991)
  • Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992)
  • James K. Morrow, Towing Jehovah (1994)
  • Maria Doria Russel, The Sparrow (1996)
  • Jim Crace, Quarantine (1997)
  • Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
  • J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
  • Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials (2000)
  • Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
  • Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The kingdom and social ethics: a typology

Here's a rough-and-ready teaching tool from today's class. We had already done some work on the social vision of Augustine's City of God, so I used that as a basis for outlining four modern approaches to social ethics:

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Goldarn doodlings

What’s the difference between optimism and hope? Hope is for pessimists.

The Farmers Unions of California and Kansas are thinking of uniting, but they’re having a problem with the acronym.

After Thatcher, Reagan, and a generation of deregulated free market capitalism, what has become of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? All that’s left is the middle finger.

On a bus in Montgomery, at a lunch counter in Greensboro, and on a football field in Santa Clara, a genealogy in the civil rights movement unfolds: Sit Down and Be Counted. A butt on a seat can unsettle the complacent as much as a march in the street, and a war anthem unsung by one can be as loud and liberating as a peace song sung by thousands.

Of course Donald Trump isn’t racist. Just ask all his African American buddies: he’ll tell you. As for his plans for deporting immigrants, Trump’s decided he doesn’t need any: if he just keeps talking, who would want to stay, including Canadians, Europeans, Australians …?

Some say that they will vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. Yeah, like Hiroshima. I commend an easier moral calculus to negotiate: don’t pick the asshole. Then it becomes a no-brainer. The sociopathic self-exceptionalism, EDD (Empathy Deficit Disorder), and utter shamelessness and incorrigibility – Trump is an asshole singularity.

What’s the “alt-right”? I live in the UK, so I looked up “ALT” in Wikipedia, which says that it is an enzyme found mainly in the liver. Elevated levels of ALT suggest diseases such as hepatitis C, cirrhosis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, mononucleosis, and myopathy. Does that sound about, er, right?


Picture a beach party on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is running the barbie, Peter thinks he’s the lifeguard, the rest of the lads are playing footie, Mary Magdalene is catching the rays and reading Valley of the Dolls, and the mother of Jesus, under an umbrella, is wearing a burkini, right?

What should we conclude from the fact that we see Jesus sitting in boats and walking on water? That he can’t swim.

Can the risen Christ be in two places at once? Sure. But then so can Schrödinger’s dead cat.

The good news is that if you think you’re evil, you’re not. The bad news is that the same goes if you think you’re good – you’re not.

Let’s be honest. Conservative evangelicals don’t homeschool their kids for religious reasons. It’s because it’s the only way they’ll get a valedictorian in the family.

That you can’t love God and hate your neighbour is a truism, though that’s never stopped Christians from continually attempting its falsification.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is my “personal Lord and Saviour”? It means that he owns my ass.

Truth is not the first casualty of war. That would be imagination.

Supersessionism? Of course not. To paraphrase Paul: You can take the boy out of Israel, but you can’t take Israel out of the boy.

At a wedding when we say that we will “love and cherish till death us do part” – that’s a promise, not a feeling; and “… for worse, in sickness …” – that’s a certainty, not a possibility.

Conversation at Sunday lunch. “Grandpa, this morning you said that the church is our Mother.” “I did.” “And you also called her the bride of Christ.” “Yes.” “So then Jesus must be our Father, right?” “Um …” “Or maybe, Grandpa, if the church is the bride of Christ, and God is the Father of Jesus, then the church is the daughter-in-law of God?” “Er, could you pass the broccoli, sweetheart?”

How long do I spend with morning prayers? At least an hour. I peruse the BBC News website, then check out a few choice blogs, following links along the way, peppering my reading with such devotional responses as “Lord, have mercy!”, “Woe to us!”, Comfort them!”, and, very occasionally, “Alleluia!” or “Thank you, Lord!” Then I say “Amen!” and log off. Hey, I’m just taking Hegel – who drolly observed that newspapers had become a substitute for morning prayers – to a new level.

What is the vocation of a minister today? To teach the faith as a foreign language, to enable her congregation to become fluent in it, to ensure that they are bilingual.

A pastoral sensitivity acquired only from experience is knowing when pain can be eased and when it can only be endured, borne by the love of God.

We all put the past in the washer-dryer, but some add bleach, for others the stains never come out, while for the elderly it inevitably shrinks.

Of course I don’t want to be younger (I’m not insane), but nor do I now want to be older. To paraphrase Augustine, time’s a bitch.

Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is gratitude.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The 7 best books I read before I turned 25

Krish Kandiah has mandated 11 books every Christian should read before they turn 25, and Andy Goodliff responded with an alternative list. I will give you my own list. How can I resist?

Instead of legislating for the rest of Christendom though, I'll just tell you the most formative books I ever read as a handsome and hopeful youngster. I assume we're only interested here in theological-type reading, so I won't mention other formative literary experiences like reading Dr Seuss and Phantom comics and sci-fi novels and the articles in Playboy magazine.

1. The Psalms. Technically I didn't read this book but I sang it a lot in the church where I grew up, even before I learned to read. It was the best thing about charismatic/Pentecostal singing back in the 70s and 80s: most of the songs were direct quotations from the Psalms (often from the KJV). I never read the Psalms for the first time: even my first reading was already a re-reading of the things I'd heard and sung in church.

2. The Book of Proverbs. I went to a religious primary school where I was subjected to a regime of edifying and disciplinary verses from this book. I often read the book of Proverbs too, and hated it. Then, later in life, I loved it. (But by then it was too late: the book is addressed to the young, i.e. to those who cannot hear it.)

3. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. We had a dramatised musical version of this called Enchanted Journey and I used to listen to it over and over on the old record player at home. My father taught me how to use the turntable and how to turn the record, which is how I got to nourish my young spirit on 1980s Bob Dylan and The Pilgrim's Progress. Later in primary school, the drama group did a production of Pilgrim's Progress. I was too young to get a part but I went to all the rehearsals and, I suppose out of sympathy, they let me be the Sound Effects Technician. What I still love about the book is the plain speech, the realistic dialogue, the journey narrative, and the lifelike novelistic characters. I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that other writers try to create people and end up with types, while Bunyan tried to create types and ended up with real people. In my opinion it is one of the most perfect books ever written in English; there's not a single thing you could change without diminishing it.

4. George Herbert, The Temple. I read and learned many of these poems during my early high school days. My mother was writing a PhD thesis on The Temple and she was always sharing some little morsel from Mr Herbert. I loved the poems because my mother loved them, and because of the plain style. Later I loved them because I discovered that they were true. The Temple is still the most precise and honest account I've ever come across about what the Christian life is really like (not what it's meant to be like: the problem with nearly all other books on this topic).

5. John Milton, Paradise Lost. Another 17th-century writer: you can see that it was a good century for me. After I finished high school I was given a Penguin paperback of Paradise Lost with a Blake illustration on the cover. I was told solemnly, "It's like an acid trip." I had been on some of those but they always left me feeling burnt out and disillusioned with the human race. Milton, who was himself burnt out and disillusioned, enlarged my vision of the human spirit and of the way history bears within itself the secret of divine providence. I liked the book so much I later wrote a PhD thesis about it. It's not my favourite book anymore, not like it used to be. The rhetoric is too high and holy. Really, Paradise Lost was written for angels, not mortals. Perhaps in the next world it will have the readers it deserves. As for me, I have gravitated back towards the plainer speech of Herbert and Bunyan, as well as other plain-style masters like Shakespeare and Hemingway and Julian of Norwich.

6. Augustine, Confessions. A few years after reading Milton for the first time, I read Augustine's Confessions. It produced a sudden change in me, more than than anything else I have ever read. Most books take years or decades to do their magic work upon the soul, but this one seemed to burn right through me and to change my view of everything. I left the Pentecostal church where I had grown up. I might easily have become Roman Catholic if anybody had suggested it to me at the time, of if it had occurred to me that Augustine was a Catholic. I thought of becoming a monk. I started reading theology, devouring thick books as if my life depended on it. I decided to go to university. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I had begun to dwell in the life of the mind (still today the only place I really feel at home).

7. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was one of the things I read after Augustine had made me hungry for books and learning. I had never even heard of Calvin, he came to me innocent and free of his own reputation. I chose the Institutes for one reason only: it was the biggest book on the shelf at the Christian bookstore, and I wanted as much knowledge as I could get my hands on. (It was the same thing that would later lead me to read Karl Barth, again an author whose name I had never heard.) I suppose because of all the 17th-century Protestant books I'd read, I found Calvin easy to understand. I could see where he was coming from. What impressed me most about the Institutes was its atmosphere. Calvin seemed to be forever poised in a kind of nervous tension between love and awe. With one hand he is grasped by majesty, with the other he is held by mercy. Calvin meant a lot to me: he was a help to me. He seemed to have an intuition for where the real problems lie. He had a knack for asking my questions before I had been able to put them into words myself. And although he didn't always claim to know the answers, he had a way of searching out the scriptures, opening up lines of inquiry, putting things into perspective and seeing everything in relation to the loving majesty of God.


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