Monday, 5 December 2016

The sad, sad, sad story of Mr. K

One cold December day, an ordinary American guy called Mr. K was walking along the road towards the future when he was mugged by Modernist and left for dead.

Postmodernist came by, heard Mr. K moan, and gave him another kicking.

Evangelical came by and left Mr. K an autographed copy of a Red-Letter Bible.

Roman Catholic came by and left Mr. K a get-well card with a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes on it.

Anglican came by and left Mr. K a glass of sherry.

Progressive came by and left Mr. K a skinny latte.

Jehovah’s Witness came by – correction: two Jehovah’s Witnesses came by – talked to the unconscious Mr. K about End-Time signs for twenty minutes, and left a tract.

Orthodox came by and made the sign of the cross.

Baptist came by and didn’t make the sign of the cross.

Presbyterian came by and looked cross.

Charismatic came by and garrulously shouted at Mr. K.

Quaker came by and kept contemplatively shtum before Mr. K.

Methodist came by and sang a hymn to Mr. K. Then three more.

Prosperity Gospel came by and stole Mr. K’s wallet.

Humanist came by and left some flowers.

New Atheist came by and drank the sherry. Then came back for the flowers.

Finally, a man with ostentatiously coiffured hair the colour of the orange juice he was drinking came by in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce Phantom. The man told his chauffeur to slow down, rolled down his window, thought “Loser!”, then told the chauffeur to step on it. Startled into consciousness by the acrid smell of the man’s cologne, Mr. K survived. Indeed, he prospered. In his prayers he always thanked God for that Good Samaritan who stopped with (what he thought were) the smelling salts, and he told anyone who would listen, “He’s just the kind of caring man we need for President.”

And so it came to pass. Of course, Mr. K was never able to put a face, let alone a name, to the bearer of the aroma of ammonia he never forgot. And sad, sad, sad to say, in October 2016 he lost his shirt at a casino in New Jersey and cursed the day he was born.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Cock-a-Doodle Doodlings (Mark 14:72)

“Ah, grief makes us precise!” —Leonard Cohen

I have never been theologically troubled by the so-called problem of evil that theodicists vainly address because, frankly, I have always believed that God is insane.

And that God has a Pythonesque sense of irony. To wit, on Election Day we woke (I kid you not) to a toilet with a leaking pipe. As the morning wore on and our domestic urine accumulated in the bowl, I thought, “Can this be a sign from the Lord?” Yes It Could.

Well, at least the star-splattered banner is still waving – waving goodbye “o’er the land of the Me and the home of the grave.”

Were I a political cartoonist, I would draw a picture of (the Statue of) Libertas contorting her massive body of copper, iron, and steel to bend over, place her head between her legs, and kiss her green ass au revoir.

After Trump’s victory was confirmed, feeling more depressed about the US than I have since the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, Malcolm and Martin – and so studiously avoiding the kitchen cabinet containing toxic household chemicals – I decided to cheer myself up. So I spent some time with GM’s sonnets of desolation and listened to LCs’ perfectly timed parting testament, “You Want It Darker”. (RIP, Lenny, once cracked, now broken: may light perpetual shine upon you.)

Anything 2016ish in Nostradamus about both Vlad the Impaler (1431) and Bram Stoker (1847) being born on November 8th?

Of course post-Election Day I feel humiliated and embarrassed to be an American. After the Vietnam years, the Nixon years, the Reagan years, the Dubya years – well, it’s like riding a bike. I’ve also grown adept at softening my New York accent and telling people I’m from Toronto.

By the impotence invested in me, I hereby declare Thanksgiving 2016 to be a National Day of Fasting. Or at least put bitter herbs in the Pumpkin Pie.

Andrew Sullivan has quotably asked, “How can you tell when a political ideology has become the equivalent of a religion?” More to the point for evangelical white-Americans (NB: “evangelical” is adjectival, “white-Americans” is the substantive), how can you tell when your religion has become the equivalent of a cultural/political ideology?

Ignoring or spinning Mark 8:36-38, many Christian have sold their soul to the devil. Of course. They got a good deal. Indeed Trump-like, it makes them smart: they won’t be declaring their profits on their income tax returns.

The go-to theologian for our troubled times has surely got to be Bonhoeffer. WWBD? Dietrich I mean, not the so-called “American Bonhoeffer” Eric Metaxas, whose inexcusable ignorance of modern German intellectual history and ideological distortions – nay, perversions – of DB’s life and thought should guarantee him a Trump Tower of a residence in the 8th circle of the Inferno.

Some Christian musings on the election of the “Remember, our God reigns” and “We always have prayer” kind – they are not false but they are not real. There is no fierce grief, no posture of resistance, no energy to join combat against the Lie, and no realisation that God is not useful, helpful, or advantageous. This is not the world of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (see Brueggemann) – or of Jesus.

What is time but a mortal wound that God heals with the astringent salve of the Spirit?

Don’t knock boredom. It is the source of all good fiction.

By all means practice introspection: it will acclimatise you to the torments of damnation.

Bad pastors command, good pastors advise – though of course they think their advice is infallible.

Advice from an old fart to newlyweds: pay close attention to the ecology of your marriage, lest, from a process of erosion, it slowly crumbles behind your very eyes.

In some contemporary liturgies there should be rubrics for snoring.

When it comes to the web, we like to think we are spiders when in fact we are flies.

What’s the difference between a care home for people with dementia and a Starbucks full of people with iPhones and laptops? You’ll find more interpersonal skills among folk in the former.

Street-wear tee shirts for the dwindling number of those whose iPhones aren’t prosthetic: the inscription reads “Watch where I’m going, apphole!”

How would I describe the social imaginary of people addicted to social media? As an anti-social imaginary, or an imaginary imaginary.

Why did I become a minister? Because I’d heard that it’s a vacation. My hearing isn’t so good.

Everybody muddles through life. Saints are simply those who muddle through it better than the rest of us.

Who do you suppose Trump sees when he looks in the mirror, assuming he sees anyone at all (see the doodling about Vlad the Impaler)? Probably himself. Like most of us. It is the saints who see someone else, “the concealed likeness, always ahead in its ambush” (R. S. Thomas), and ask, “Why do you look at me like that?”

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

To write new books is human; to publish old ones divine

Some wonderful new books were brought into the world this year. I love them and am grateful for their safe arrival. My favourites have included Rowan Williams's brilliant study of tragic theatre, The Tragic Imagination (one of the best books he's ever written, if you ask me); Richard Hays' masterful and memorable Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels; Ian McEwan's delightful novel Nutshell, narrated by Hamlet as a baby in the womb; Stephen Backhouse's biographical page-turner, Kierkegaard: A Single Life; Geoff Thompson's timely theological provocations, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many; Leo Damrosch's gorgeously illustrated Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake; Tom Wainwright's entertaining and sobering Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel; and Sandy Maisel's informative American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction (terrific series, by the way).

And what about the books I haven't got to yet but am saving for a rainy day? Larry Hurtado's Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World looks especially good; so does Catherine Chin's edited volume Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family and Bruce Gordon's John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography and Fleming Rutledge's The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

I greet you, all you new-born books! May the world treat you kindly! May God's blessing keep you always, may your wishes all come true! May you stay forever young! May you make your authors rich, or at least not destitute!

But even better than all the new books, the past year has been a season of new editions. These are the books that I have loved the most during the past twelve months, these labours of publishing love, these tributes to the human spirit, these hopeful gestures towards culture and a common good. Here are the new editions that I'm talking about, all published within the last 12 months:

Martin Luther, The Annotated Luther (Fortress Press) – 4 big volumes so far, with 2 more still to come, very handsomely produced with big wide margins and an inviting layout, each text nestled in a wealth of historical information (footnotes, anecdotes, woodcuts and other illustrations from the period, extensive introductions to each work, etc). One would always prefer to be reading Erasmus: but if one has to dip into Luther from time to time, this is the way to do it. Fortress Press are a mighty engine-house when it comes to new English editions: if you haven't got the 17 volumes of their Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, then I chide you.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Other Writings (Everyman's Library) – 1200 pages of Burkean sanity in the always-lovely Everyman's Library edition, red cloth, gilded spine, gold ribbon, just like the books they made in France before the revolution. This one's not so good on Burke's major works (only the Reflections is included in full, the rest are excerpted), but it does make room for innumerable little pamphlets and speeches and letters and whatnot, always worth reading for Burke's inimitable prose style.

T. S. Eliot, The Poems of T. S. Eliot (Johns Hopkins University Press) – 2 massive volumes, about 2,000 pages' worth, all that you could ever want (and more) of this most modern of modern poets. And since Eliot was also perhaps the greatest essayist of the 20th century (Virginia Woolf is just as good – but who else is in their league?), how could I be forgiven if I failed to mention the same publisher's multi-volume critical edition of Eliot's Complete Prose?

Reinhold Niebhur, Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (Library of America) – Well technically this was more than a year ago, it came out in April 2015, but who's counting? For less than 30 bucks you can get your hands on 800 pages of Niebuhr, including four complete books and a whole archive of sermons, lectures, prayers, etc, much of it never published before.

John Maynard Keynes, The Essential Keynes (Penguin) – Did you know how much fun it can be to spend an afternoon reading Keynes? Do yourself a favour and give it a try. This goodly ten-dollar paperback crams in 600 pages of Keynes – not only the economics but also a sample of his immensely insightful and entertaining thoughts on politics, culture, biography, etc. Keynes tends to be remembered only as an economist which is a shame since he was one of the most cultured characters of his day, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a scintillating essayist with wide interests and boundless curiosity.

And the other day this one arrived, the mother of all new editions, a massive scholarly labour, a playground erected over the crater of the theologians: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith: A New Translation and Critical Edition (WJK) – 2 volumes, well over a thousand pages, newly translated by Terrence Tice and Catherine Kelsey, with thousands of footnotes on Schleiermacher's German vocabulary, sources, etc, and with a most marvellous 60-page "analytical index of topics" that provides a key to Schleiermacher's intricate tapestry of concepts. I say this without a trace of irony: I read the whole index right through and found it riveting. I was riveted! It's a wonderful new edition and an exceptional achievement.

So there you have it, reader. By all means read the new books. But by even more means, read the old ones too. For to write new books is human; to publish old ones divine.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Postgraduate seminar on Karl Barth: what to read?

This year it was Origen; next year I’ll be teaching a postgraduate seminar on the theology of Karl Barth. It’s a 12-week course and I’m trying to decide on the readings. Barth presents special challenges here, given the huge slow expansiveness of his best work. The best seminar in the world would be one on Church Dogmatics IV – but where on God’s good earth are the students who would agree to read the requisite 3,000 pages?

Anyway, I’ve come up with three possible approaches so far, and I’d love to know what you think. Which of these would you prefer if you were doing a seminar like this? Which texts you would choose if you were the teacher? Anyone else out there have experience with a course like this?

First Idea. Barth’s early theology

The Word of God and Theology (2 weeks)
Epistle to the Romans (5 weeks)
Göttingen Dogmatics (5 weeks)

Second Idea. Barth’s dogmatics

Göttingen Dogmatics (5 weeks)
Michael Allen’s Church Dogmatics reader (5 weeks)
The Humanity of God (2 weeks)

Third Idea. Barth’s doctrine of creation

Parts of Church Dogmatics III/1 – creation and covenant (6 weeks)
Parts of Church Dogmatics III/3 – providence and evil (6 weeks)

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.


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