Thursday, 23 February 2017

#PresidentPrayer and #PresidentLove

Old Nobodaddy –
who lives in Manhattan, parties in Atlantic City, and holidays in Florida –
let your name be up in lights!
Do what it takes to make America great again [repeat].
Turn it into the New Jerusalem –
replete with casinos, golf courses, and precious stones by Melania;
surrounded by a great wall and, of course, Arabless.
Give me today – make it a Big Mac, Lay’s Potato Chips, and a Diet Coke.
Forgive me … – cancel that: WTF do I have to be sorry about? –
and forget about me forgiving losers!
Don’t bring me to trial – you’d be wasting your time (I’ve got an army of lawyers);
and deliver me from “so-called” judges (goddam enemies of the people).
For mine – sorry, I mean yours – well, ours –
is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for as long as it takes.
We’re done here.

If I speak eloquently and coherently, I’m not speaking like Trump: Trump-speak is a cacophony of bullshit. If I don’t know my ass from my elbow, and if I have the fantasy of draining a huge swamp, and if I have access to state secrets that can be used to destroy the world – that’s Trump. And if I give all my money to the poor, disclose my tax returns, pay the ultimate price for goods and services, and permanently delete my Twitter account – now that would be the Antitrump.

“Trump is patient; Trump is kind; Trump does not want what others have; he is not full-of-himself or high-and-mighty or in-your-face. Trump is not an ego maniac; he never flies off the handle or bears a grudge; he does not gloat when others fail; he relishes only what is actually the case.  Trump is a paragon of virtue” (Kellyanne Conway).

Trump will be as everlasting as a mayfly, as ephemeral as fart.  He will never give up, but he will finally self-destruct.  One day (Inshallah) he will look in a mirror, point his little foredigit at the caricature before him, and shout, “You’re fired!”

“When I was a child, I thought, felt, and acted like a child.  When I grew up, I continued to think, feel, and act like a child – no, make that a big cry-baby.  I’ve got the self-control of a dingo on acid. I don’t see things clearly yet, but one day I never will” (Trump, after being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques).

Meanwhile, there are three things that will sustain us in our overwhelming perplexity and despair: faith, hope, and whatsit. And the greatest of these is Trump.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum Doodlings

What an immaculately conceived picture of Queen B as Madonna del Parto in the Instagram icon. I hear that Gabriel has told Beyoncé to name the twin boy after his father: Jay-Zeus.

The Trinity is like pornography: you can’t put it into words but, as Justice Potter Stewart famously declared, “I know it when I see it.”

Praying the other day, I was suddenly interrupted. “Why do you keep calling me ‘Jesus’?” he asked. “Because that’s your name,” I replied. “In Latin,” he said. “For God’s sake, speak English: call me ‘Jack’.”

God gives us the bread of life on the table lest we starve on the scraps from the pulpit.

What is “closure” but the therapeutic ploy of putting putty in the cracks so the light can’t get in?

The profundity of Leonard Cohen’s poetry is that it doesn’t dispel the darkness but illuminates its different shades.

To riff on Hopkins: stars star and planets planet, continents continent and oceans ocean, trees tree and tigers tiger. And humans? Alas, humans inhuman.

Power disempowers; absolute power disempowers absolutely.

I would never have believed it, but it’s actually happening: Trump is uniting the American people in a common cause and achievable project – national self-hatred and suicide.

To paraphrase Erasmus, “In a nation of the blind, the one-eyed man is president.” In this case, he happens to be Cyclops, with the same temperament and appetites.

Just a few weeks into his presidency and Donald Trump is already posing the serious threat of a paradigm shift over Godwin’s Law.

I hear that henceforth all US editions of 1984 will be retitled 2017.

Sunday January 29th: in church. The Gospel is the Beatitudes. No need to preach it today. The text comes alive by simple juxtaposition with the anti-sermon, the anti-Beatitudes, of Trump’s execrable executive actions demonising Muslims.

Sunday January 29th: at home. After seeing the chilling, ugly game of xenophobia that Trump is playing, felt filthy. After watching the thrilling, beautiful tennis match between a Swiss and a Spaniard, felt cleansed.

Forget a coherent opposition, mass demonstrations, or the power of prayer, what we now need is a first-class White House asshole whisperer.

According to the British daily the i, scientists are suggesting that our earliest ancestor was a small creature with thin skin, a large mouth, and no anus, which means that “waste material would simply have been taken out back through the mouth.” Yikes, the missing link is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

“No matter how many body-politic-parts there are, you are still only one body-politic. If the heart-valves were to say, ‘Because we’re not the anus, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. Or if the brain-lobes were to say, ‘Because we’re not the penis, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. If one part of the body acts like an asshole or a prick, all the other parts share in the shite and the piss” (I Americans 11:14ff.)

Of course Trump doesn’t get the fundamental constitutional principle of “checks and balances”. He thinks it’s the discourse of banking, not government. You sign checks and you balance the books – or rather you bounce checks and cook the books.

I’ll tell you what makes me want to knock a thousand heads together: American evangelicals, in sackcloth and ashes, wailing that Thank-you-Jesus-for-President-Trump Christians are the last straw. Earth to American evangelicals: evangelical Americans have been building a haystack of alternative theology (as in “alternative facts”) for my entire adult life, a rick so enormous that by the Reagan presidency astronauts could have seen it from the moon. The trajectory is hardly a quelle-surprise: what began with “The Apostasy of Billy Graham” (the working title of a book on Nixon’s Hananiah that William Stringfellow had planned to write) reaches its nadir in the religious nihilism of Trump’s court toady Franklin.

Would someone please tell Christians who police the boundaries of their communities that faith is supposed to be the trigger of ecclesial fusion, not fission?

Doing theology takes time. Some of the time is for research and writing, of course. Most of the time, however, is for prayer. At least it is if you’re doing it right.

Prosperity Gospel market update on Revelation 1:8a: “‘I am the Alpha but not the Omega; rather I am the 1942 Rolex Chronograph,’ says the Lord God Almighty.”

And Pilate said, “How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” The cuffed Christ replied, “Er, both.” “Ah,” the procurator smirked, “the old PS defence.”

“Whose side is God on?” we are tempted to ask in all kinds of conflicts, but his answer is always the same: “Not yours.”

Grief cuts us adrift. The tides of time take most people back to shore. Lifeboats may retrieve others. But some continue to drift, drift, drift out to a bleak and pitiless sea.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Karl Barth postgraduate seminar

I promised you an update on what we'll be reading for my Barth seminar this semester. Thanks for all the great suggestions, both here and on Facebook. After much reflection and dialectical hesitation and whatnot, I decided to head off in a slightly different direction, and that is to make Barth's concept of religion a focal point for the seminar. I think this helps to cover a lot of bases. It allows us to read both the Romans commentary and an important section of Church Dogmatics, while keeping strong thematic links across the semester. And it opens up some of the most important areas of Barth's thought (e.g. revelation, election, grace, the task of theology, the critique of protestant liberalism on the one side and Roman Catholicism on the other, etc). In a perfect world we would also have time to read Barth's "doctrine of the lights" from later in the Church Dogmatics. But, ladies and gentlemen, last time I looked out the window it was not a perfect world.

Anyway these are the texts that we'll be reading:
  • "The New World in the Bible" and "The Word of God as the Task of Theology", from The Word of God and Theology, translated by Amy Marga
  • Barth, Epistle to the Romans, translated by E. C. Hoskyns
  • Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, translated by Garrett Green (this is a section of Church Dogmatics that was newly translated and published separately as a funky little paperback)
And here are the twelve weekly readings that we'll be discussing:

1 Revelation: "The New World in the Bible"

2 Dialectical theology: "The Word of God as the Task of Theology"

3 A new approach to scripture: Epistle to the Romans, prefaces (all of them!)

4 The night of sin: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 1

5 God's faithfulness: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 3

6 The new human being: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 5

7 Judgment on religion: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 7

8 Judgment on the church: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10

9 Revelation and religion: On Religion, chapter 1

10 The sin of religion: On Religion, chapter 2

11 The justification of religion: On Religion, chapter 3a (pp. 111-44)

12 Christ and the Christian religion: On Religion, chapter 3b (pp. 144-66)

Students will be required to write a first paper exploring one particular chapter from the Romans commentary, and a second paper that explores one of the larger themes in these texts.

If anybody from the Sydney area would like to come along and join us, the seminar will be on Tuesday afternoons, commencing early March. Non-fee-paying audit participants are always welcome!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Tales of an eccentric theologian-genius

A friend came to see me today. He was talking about his days as a theological student back in South Africa. I mentioned Karl Barth, and he said he never liked Barth. When I demanded an explanation, he told me he had attended lectures on Barth by a professor of systematic theology named Angus Holland.

Professor Holland, my friend explained, was a little eccentric. He had studied music and medicine. He had a doctorate in mathematics. When he turned to theology he wrote a huge dissertation on Athanasius. When the thing had swollen to nearly 1400 pages, his supervisor commanded him: "Angus, do not write another word or comma. If you need to, just stop in the middle of a sentence."

He was famous on campus for his mathematical genius, his staggering memory, and his lack of social skills. He could recall the weather on any day of his life. If you named any date in history, he could instantly tell you which day of the week it was. Before any lecture he would glance up at the students seated in front of him and announce the percentage of total attendance to three or four decimal places. For example, if 3 of the 17 students were absent from the Barth seminar, he would begin by remarking: “Good morning. I see we have an 82.3529% attendance today.”

Did he recognise any of his students? Did he know their names? They never knew. If you greeted him in the corridor – “Good afternoon, professor!” – he would stop, furrow his brow, look earnestly in your direction, study some fixed point on the wall somewhere above you, then walk off in the opposite direction without saying a word.

The students always suspected him of performing parallel calculations during his lectures. They wanted to prove it. So they went one day to the department of mathematics and asked for an exceedingly complicated equation. A professor of mathematics wrote it out for them. Before class they filled the blackboard with the equation. Professor Holland walked in. He stood a moment and looked at the board. He took the eraser and cleaned the board. He talked uninterrupted for two hours about Greek patristic theology. When the class finished he turned, wrote the answer on the board, and walked out.

He had a curious habit of jangling the coins in his pocket when he prayed. It was distracting. He would be giving a long extemporaneous Presbyterian prayer during the chapel service, and you would see his hand in his pocket and you would hear the jingle of coins. What was he doing down there? Was there a rosary in his pocket? Was he playing with himself? The students asked one of the other lecturers about it. “His loose change,” he said. “He counts it when he prays.”

The professor loved fairy tales. He knew them and loved them with a passion. He would use fairy tales to illustrate his lectures, though you never could quite grasp the connections that he had intuited between the story and the topic at hand. It only added to your bafflement. But it was always a pleasure to hear him speak, with such fierce intellectual joy, about some German fairy tale.

This professor, my friend told me, was the person who taught him Karl Barth. The lectures were intricate, polylingual, unfathomable. It was like trying to read Hegel: you couldn’t take down any notes because the whole thing transpired on a level to which you had no natural access. At the end of a 2-hour lecture on Barth, it might have occurred to you to jot down one word or phrase. But usually not.

In class the professor could quote any passage of the Church Dogmatics from memory. He never had any notes. If a student read out a passage in English, he would correct the translation from memory. None of the students in this particular South African classroom had any knowledge of German. One day, in response to a student’s question, the professor quoted Barth’s German for a full five minutes. They watched the clock ticking on the wall. Five minutes. In German. Then he resumed his lecture without any word of comment or explanation.

My friend spread out his hands, helpless and apologetic, and he said, “When it came to Barth, I never had a chance.”

I begged him for more anecdotes. He gave me one more. He saved the best for last.

One evening the professor was visiting a colleague’s house some miles away. He had intended to walk home. It started to rain heavily and there was no umbrella. His colleague said, “Angus, why don’t you stay here tonight instead of going home in the rain.” He replied, “Thank you, that’s very kind, I will do that.”

His colleague left the room and when he returned there was no sign of the professor. He looked in the kitchen. He searched upstairs. He went from room to room. His house-guest was nowhere to be seen. It was a mystery. The rain poured down. Later that evening, the doorbell rang. There stood Professor Holland, soaked to the skin and dripping wet and holding up his toothbrush. He had gone home to get it.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The gift of weakness: a funeral homily

(Myra was a 79-year-old former primary school teacher, keen golfer, and faithful church member who spent the last 7 years of her life in a nursing home before dying of a dementia-related illness. One of her two sons, John, gave the eulogy. The lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 was then read, and the homily followed.) 

What can I add to John’s tribute to Myra? With a portrait so rich in detail and colour, not much! The focus on family – devotion to Graham, pride in her boys, delight in her grandchildren; the importance of friendships; the vitality – and that smile; the practical faith visible in attention to others and service in the church (at Bethel, on the Social Committee): that’s the Myra we knew in Sketty. But not the only Myra. For the Myra finally overtaken by dementia was Myra too. And God may have something to tell us through Myra in her weakness as well as Myra in her strength. After all, isn’t that the way God worked through Jesus?

Dementia has now replaced cancer as the illness that embodies our deepest fears. Pitiless and inexorable, it seems to threaten our very identity as human beings. Memory evaporates as the past splits from the present like an iceberg cracking from the inside out. Recognition blurs, relationships pale, self-care crumbles.

But how much of this appraisal simply reflects our own visceral fears shaped by a culture captive to the idols of autonomy, productivity, and control? How much of our default evaluation of dementia as a “living death” is simply a projection of unexamined assumptions about selfhood? Are we ever masters of our own experience? Are we not always strangers to ourselves? Isn't all that we have not a secure acquisition but a fragile gift? And isn't who I am finally determined not by what I achieve but by how God sees me?

What if we stop assuming that dementia is solely an affliction that takes us into a bad place and consider the possibility that it might even be a grace that moves us towards a new place? Perhaps the truly awful thing for people with dementia is not so much that they forget – for memory is a collective enterprise, something we do together – but that they are often forgotten.

Certainly Myra was not forgotten by her own family, and if my own experience rings true, amidst her frailty and helplessness, and your loss and pain, there were moments – holy moments – of intimacy, tenderness, humour, and love, a love which the pathos of the situation only served to clarify, deepen, and sustain.

In Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter, the elderly twice-widowed heroine, reflecting on life and loss, observes: “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be a story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while…. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

The tapestry that is each of us: this side of death I think mostly we see the back side with its loose ends and knots and messiness. But on the other side, the side of resurrection: there the stitches shine like gold, the pattern of our lives – the pattern of Myra’s life – completed, perfected, glorious, woven by the God of creation and recreation we see in Jesus.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Doodlings at dusk

The gospel in 2 words: “Hey, Boo.”

If it’s a clear night on New Year’s Eve, I make a point of gazing at the heavens and counting the stars, to get a tally of my sins at Old Year’s End.

And New Year’s Day? The annual absolution of Sunrise – starlessness – and the single resolution to sin better.

The insidious secular-fundamentalist time-totalitarianism of wall calendar-makers, beginning the week with Monday – a New Year’s pox on you!

Time used to be a friend of mine. No more. He’s become a thief, first nicking bits and pieces of my memory, and now – the bastard – serially robbing me of friends.

My faith in God is sure because it expects nothing from him and always gets it. God is utterly reliable and blesses me with the gracious gift of inconsolability.

“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer; until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger; more and more precise, more and more reverberating” (James Baldwin). So too for every preacher.

What do I make of the prayer Psalm 19:14 when said by many a minister before preaching? Wishful thinking.

“No arts, no letters, no society, continual fear, rich, nasty, brutish, and 6-foot-2.” – Thomas Hobbes on Donald Trump

You’ve got to hand it to The Donald: he’s a master of word-care. Sorry, that’s a typo: I left out the “s”.

The world according to Trump – is it not one vast self-projection? Trump wants only one thing: attention. I therefore propose that the way to make him go away is to live rebelliously etsi Trumpus non daretur.

But one thing in defence of The Donald: he was culpably misquoted about building a wall along the Mexican order. He said mall, not wall.

If I could ask Mr. Trump one self-revealing question, what would it be? That’s an easy one: what have you read in the last 5 years? Not counting Two Corinthians.

A friend of mine said to me, venomously, that he wouldn’t piss on Trump if he was on fire. I told him I’m not surprised: I wouldn’t piss on Trump if I was on fire either. However I would if I wasn’t.

Sign seen at a white evangelical rally: “Thank you, President Trump, for Jesus”.

What is social media, with its wilful and shameless decimation of the private, but a vast technological concentration camp, replete with its rapid descent into brutality?

In the toxic world of social media, name your poison: Facebook for kitsch, Twitter for Krieg.

In an age of multifarious distractions, liturgy teaches us the joy and excitement of monotony.

There are maximum security prisons, and there are maximum insecurity prisons. Many of the latter are churches.

What can we say about many a church-swapper? Amos 5:19a.

Listen to your conscience. It is your PMA (personal moral adviser). Just remember that sometimes it gives you bad advice. Remember too, however, that a bad conscience may be better than a deluded one (Bonhoeffer).

In The End of Protestantism Peter Leithart suggests that “doctrines have mattered and do matter; they have mattered enough for people to kill and die for them.” Hold on: doctrines have mattered little enough for people to kill for them.

Motoring around Europe during the summer of 1969, I spent a few days in Geneva. What struck me most about Calvintown was its spotlessness – the streets were as clean as plates. And that if the city were a painting, it would be a still life. Bad Presbyterianism in a nutshell: anal retentive and nothing happening.

What are we to think of the people who leave strict instructions for their funerals (from music and readings, to dress codes, to embargos on sadness)? Hell, if you’re going to micromanage, micromanage, and write your own goddamn eulogy too.

It is said that God has no grandchildren. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Though I guess he does. Poor old God.

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