Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The disappearing thesis: on favoured literary forms

Those who knew G. K. Chesterton always knew how to find him. Wherever he went, he left a trail of essays behind him—often just little ruminations scribbled on scraps of wallpaper and old receipts that tipped out of his pockets as he rambled through the streets. And yet he was fully awake to the novelty of such a life. Montaigne was a mere few centuries dead, and the literary experiments bloomed and faded like flowers when compared to gothic walls of mediaeval literature that surrounded him. He was committed to the essay, but only as he was deeply concerned by it.

Such a profound shift in writing would necessarily produce a shift in thinking, a shift which he locates in his essay "On Essays". The essay is a wild thing, untamed and beautiful. Chesterton writes, “By its very nature it does not exactly explain what it is trying to do, and thus escapes a decisive judgement about whether it has really done it… It is always dealing with theoretical matters without the responsibility of being theoretical, or of propounding a theory.” Modern thought developed into wanton theorising without the commitment of extensive structured reasoning. “The mediaeval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay.” Those who think only in essays think only in digressions.

Luther, he continues, was no revolutionary modernist, but a ponderous mediaevalist, nailing theses to be defended: “he was doing exactly what all the other mediaeval doctors had done since the twilight of the Dark Ages.” Luther made assertions with the intention to argue them for the remainder of his life. If Luther had been a mere essayist, we would all be Tetzelites.

And yet the essayist is no villain, but merely suffers a contagious form of intellectual ADHD. “The trouble is that the essayists have become the only ethical philosophers. The wandering thinkers have become the wandering preachers… After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or get home.” Home for us cannot be the mediaeval cloisters; Chesterton desires only the survival of the thesis. A little intellectual meandering is good for the soul and cleanses the mind, but we need a thesis in order to depart from it here and there. Without a thesis, how will we ever know if we are truly on an excursion? 

“It would be unfair, perhaps, to say that the modern man only essays to think—or, in other words, makes a desperate attempt to think. But it would be true to say that the modern man often only essays, or attempts, to come to a conclusion.”

Whatever would he have made of Twitter? #GKC #newblogpost

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Polly wolly doodlings

The cast of characters at the RNC was right out of Looney Tunes. I half expected Elmer Twump to delight the crowd by whispering, “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting Hiwwary.”

Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. “Who do you say I am?” he asked them. Trump, called The Donald, answered, “You’re a loser!” “Exactly!” replied Jesus. “So much for your Messiah crap, Peter.” Then he ordered them, “Go, tell everyone what The Donald just said” (Mark 8:27ff., Original Autograph).

Samuel Johnson was close but wrong: patriotism is the penultimate refuge of the scoundrel; his last refuge is “authenticity” (e.g., Donald Trump) and “sincerity” (e.g., Tony Blair).

On being accused of plagiarising Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 DNC, Melania Trump declared, “I don’t imitate, I steal.”

“I know I don't have his looks. I know I don't have his money. I know I don't have his connections, his knowledge of fine wines. I know sometimes when I eat I get this clicking sound in my jaw… First he screws me, then he screws you… Excellent.” —From Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump (Wayne’s World)

Just out is a new, pre-election edition of Daniel Kahneman’s masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is entitled Thinking, Fast, Slow, and Orangutan, with a foreword by Bill Maher.

What do you call someone who orders a rib eye, gets an overcooked hamburger, and is so pissed off that he stomps into the kitchen and eats the slops? A Bernie supporter who votes for Trump.

 “The business of America is business”? No, Cal, the business of America is America.

Under felt threat, toads puff, bears rear, and cats bristle and yowl. So too politicians who, alas – so much for evolution – then declare states of emergency.

Do I think it’s okay for ministers, male or female, to wear other than black clerical shirts? Sure, as long as they’re charcoal, onyx, or ebony. Rainbow-coloured shirts are just plain naff, the sartorial equivalent of saying “Hi guys” at the start of worship.

It is ridiculous to suggest that Jesus was a Christian. More ridiculous still to suggest that God is a Christian. They are, of course, both Jews.

One thing the gospels don’t tell us about Jesus (though Isaiah 53 may suggest it) is that he walked with a limp. How else could the disciples have kept up with him?

Preachers, have you ever stumbled and fallen on the way to the pulpit? If not, why not?

If you’re a minister who prefers preaching to visiting, that’s probably because you prefer listening to yourself for half an hour than to somebody else. Or perhaps because the preparation is less onerous.

The bad news about being angry with God is that you don’t trust him. The good news about being angry with God is that you don’t trust him.

Let Kent’s words to Cordelia (King Lear, IV, vii) be the epigraph of your every engagement with Facebook and Twitter: “To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid.”

Let’s get incarnational. The colonising of the mind by conventional images of the “beautiful” face and the “perfect” body is not only a cultural pathology, it is also just plain wrongheaded. For experience teaches that when it comes to physical attraction, looks comes a poor second to scent, not least in longevity of appeal. A thousand gazes aren’t worth a single sniff.

Blessed is the person who uses the subjunctive more than the indicative, for life will be full of surprises and the kingdom will always be near.

Yes, Karl, the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other. But you forgot to mention that after the sermon, depending on the newspaper, the preacher might have to wash and disinfect the latter appendage.

It’s becoming more and more fashionable for people to micromanage their own funerals. I recently attended a funeral where instead of honouring God through Myvanwy we honoured Myvanwy through God. Actually, though, it’s a quite venerable practice, going back to Pharaoh.

The decline of faith has left the West without a grammar of grief. Flowers (lots and lots of flowers), rainbow raiment, pop songs, Twitter tributes, and Kahil Gibran are among our more sententious solecisms of “celebration”.

It’s a fallacy to think that just because you’ve got a good pair of garden shears you’ll be able to cut hard branches: they might be non-secateurs.

New programme on the God Channel featuring the saved giving their testimonies: it’s called Corn Again!

Ecclesiastical Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: the pathologies, respectively, of liberal and traditionalist churches. The one has no memory and the other no mobility.

I suspect that the living don’t miss the dead half as much as the dead miss the living.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Milton vs. Shakespeare: Is the Christian faith tragic or comic?

I had the pleasure of giving a short dinner speech at Campion College this week. I compared Milton's tragic vision to Shakespeare's comic vision, and argued that these are two alternative ways of understanding history theologically. The audio is available here.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Field of dreams: a sermon on baseball and redeeming the past

I’m a psychoanalyst’s dream: I rarely have sweet ones. Usually something of a nightmare. Two in particular I’ve been having for over 50 years. In one I’m being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex: very Jurassic Park. The other concerns a baseball game, the 1965 Suffolk County Final, my own Huntington High School versus West Babylon High School. The score is tied and the game is now well into extra innings. It’s a swelteringly hot day, and the umpires almost decide to call it a draw lest we youngsters drop from dehydration, but they decide to let the game continue one more inning. With a runner on third base but two outs (three outs to an inning), I come up to bat against an all-star pitcher with an evil fast ball. I take (don’t swing at) the first two pitches, curve balls, because they’re out of the strike zone. Now he’s got to come in with the third, and it’s got to be his best pitch, and I’m ready for it. Sure enough, it’s a fastball, belt-high and right over the plate. I swing the bat. Crack! The ball soars into center field. Never have I hit a ball so well or so far. The crowd rises to its feet. The runner on third base trots home and watches. I round first base and also watch, for surely the centerfielder will never reach the ball in time, and we will score the run we need to win the game. But he’s off like a jackrabbit and at the last moment he leaps, stretches, and tumbles to the ground, rising triumphantly with the ball lodged firmly in the webbing of his glove. I am in despair. I wake in a sweat. But not only because I came within an inch of winning the game, but because I know what happened next – can never forget what happened next – in West Babylon’s last turn at bat: I made the error which let in the run which lost us the title. From nearly hero to bleating goat in a matter of minutes.

I know, I know, it’s only a game. But it’s also a metaphor for a fundamental fact of life: there are no what Americans call do-overs; what’s done is done and cannot be undone. You can’t rewind the tape, edit it, and then fast-forward to the present. As the poet (T. S. Eliot) says:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
But the world isn’t speculative, it’s concrete and unforgiving, and failure is a weight you just have to bear like Sisyphus with his irremovable load (but probably without his imperturbable smile). Or is it? And do you?

Let me tell you another baseball story, Field of Dreams (starring Kevin Costner), perhaps the most magical film of the merciless 1980s. Ray Kinsella is a novice Iowa farmer with a wife and small daughter, struggling to make ends meet. One evening, alone in his cornfield, a voice whispers from the heavens: “If you build it, he will come.” Build what? Who will come? In the days ahead Ray continues to hear the voice, and finally he sees a glorious vision of a baseball diamond set in the field. Now Ray knows what he must do. To the astonishment and derision of his neighbours, he destroys valuable cropland to build a baseball field, the “field of dreams”. The “he” – at least the initial “he” – who “will come” turns out to be “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, from the infamous Chicago “Black” Sox, who was accused of taking a bribe in the 1919 World Series and was subsequently banned from the game. Now, on the “field of dreams” that Ray built, this disgraced man gets another chance to play ball.

But Ray soon learns that it’s not just for Shoeless Joe that he has been called to be an agent of grace. For the voice speaks to him again and sends him on a journey east to “ease his pain”, the pain, it transpires, of Terence Mann, a once famous but now neglected and embittered writer, who as a child dreamed of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ray finds Mann in Boston, takes him to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, during which he hears yet another voice telling him to “go the distance”, the “distance” of meeting another might-have-been, an old GP, Archibald Graham, who played just one game in the Big Leagues. Doc Graham doesn’t return to the farm with Ray and Mann, but on the way they do pick up a young hitchhiker named, in this enchanted world, Archie Graham, who is still dreaming.

But that’s still not the end of Ray’s journey of faith, for one other figure finally appears on the “field of dreams”: Ray’s own father, though now dead, as a young man. John had wanted Ray to live out his own dream of becoming a baseball star, but their relationship had soured after Ray vilified Shoeless Joe, one of his father’s heroes. Ray now sees his dad sympathetically as a complex composite human being, both sinning and sinned against, and sees himself as that man, everyman, too. In a moving final scene, father and son are reconciled, as we now realise that John is the ultimate “he” who “will come” for Ray to “ease his pain”. Cue an iconic American cameo: father and son playing a game of catch on the “field of dreams”.

Well, for Brits who think that baseball is glorified rounders when cricket is baseball on Valium, perhaps you’re thinking what’s the big deal? What’s the matter with Kim this morning? What’s with the nostalgia? Is he homesick? Yes, I’m homesick. But not really for the Huntington Blue Devils, or for the Major Leaguer I never was, or even for my late and lovely dad who played catch with me. No, but for the home, the poet (T. S. Eliot again) observes, we all start from, leave, and long to return to. Banished from the Garden, exiled from the Promised Land – these are the archetypal biblical images: we are all exiles and strangers, wayfarers and pilgrims, lost and searching, homeless and homesick, longing for homecoming, paradise regained. We all, deep down, have a sense that somewhere, sometime, something went wrong – we went wrong – and if only we could go back, get another chance, we’d get it right, or right the wrong, and all manner of things would be well.

Perhaps, as in Ray’s case, it was a relationship that broke down, with a parent, lover, or friend. Or perhaps, as in the case of Terence Mann, it was a painful rejection that made us withdraw from the world, nursing our wounds. Or perhaps, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, it was some mistake we made for which we’ve never been forgiven – or perhaps for which we’ve never forgiven ourselves. Oh to be able to go back and restore the relationship, to follow the road not taken, to receive mercy, to make amends! Is it true that alienation, defeat, failure, disgrace, finally confirmed by death, have the final word? Are second chances only the stuff of cinematic fairy tales? Is the past irredeemable?

It is interesting that in Field of Dreams there is no mention of God or Christ. Indeed at the time of its release, a Scottish church leader read the film simply as a “monument to obsession”. Well, I guess his neighbours called Abraham obsessive when he heard the call of God to “Go!”, and he went. And I guess their friends called Peter and Andrew obsessive when they heard the call of Jesus to “Follow!”, and they went. Perhaps you yourself have been thought obsessive if you’ve had a flash of insight or recognition and felt the quickening of your spirit compelling you to do something that to all the world looks daft or insane, but you just knew you had to do it because it gave you the chance to recover something precious you’d lost, or to find the one thing needful for your life to make sense. For this particular obsessive and dreamer – obsessed with the Nazarene, dreaming of the kingdom – the film stands as an unforgettable parable, a celluloid sacrament, that taps into the deep hole in our hearts, which we need to discover and acknowledge, which the gospel tells us need not remain empty but, by faith, can be filled with redeeming grace, so that our restless hearts can find their rest in God.

We usually think that we live our lives forwards, towards the future, but the Christian life is also lived backwards, towards the past. Whatever mess we may have made of it, however distressing our memory of it, by grace both mess and memory can be transformed, such that we can review the whole of our lives without bitterness or despair. St Augustine, in his ruthlessly self-critical autobiography the Confessions, is our teacher. “In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time … but has now become the meaning of everything that happened”; discovers that because “God dwells in memory, the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence” (Ben Myers). We can look back and see a trajectory, a tipping point, a revelation. Everything falls into place, works for good.

No, neither guilt nor shame, neither failure nor defeat, not even death itself have the final word in our lives. Because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, my past and my present – what my past is doing now – have a future. Crane your faith: can you see it? The day dawning on the “field of dreams” we call the new creation, when (so to speak!) the ball drops safely, the runner scores, and – thanks be to God! – victory is ours through him who loves us.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sonderegger on Style

A good book gathers annotations—marginal notes, exclamations marks, and question marks, often paired together. When the margins are full, these engagements overflow into the pages of journals and reviews. Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is a good book. Marginalia has just published a wonderful review essay by Brad East, which captures well the confounding and compelling spirit of Sonderegger’s work.

Brad ends his review with a comment on style: “Her distinction is not that she does systematic theology… but how she does it. Her style is a throwback: unashamedly spiritual, punch-drunk with praise and prayer, compelled by living encounter with divine reality.” Which describes wonderfully the experience of reading her work.

Style, after all, has been of interest to Sonderegger for years. In the early 90s, she published a piece, “On Style in Karl Barth”, which made me never want to write on Barth again. In the opening paragraphs, she provides a chilling description of the lifelessness of Barth scholarship when compared with its source. “The lengthy treatments of Barth’s ‘method’, so popular among Anglo-Americans, seem to march on, correctly but rather mercilessly, revealing so little of the joyful delight and freedom of movement Barth shows at every turn” (p. 65). 

Those who wish to avoid method might attempt to write on Barth’s doctrine, but will hardly fare any better, since Barth forces a choice upon the interpreter: “are they ‘within the system’, or are they without, looking in? … Allegiance often results in a wooden repetition of Barth’s own phrases, only in a very loud voice” (p. 66). If one wishes to reckon with Barth at all, one must face this problem at some point, either creating a false system to critique from a distance, or entering into his world and bumbling like a fool. “It is”, Sonderegger laments, “a particularly friendless hour when this problem finally arrives at your door. Nothing, really, is so wooden to read as one’s own prose about Barth” (p. 66).

And so it is no wonder that when she comes to turn her hand to a systematic theology, Sonderegger mostly puts Barth to the side and speaks with her own voice. Perhaps being a true disciple of Barth means simply doing the work of theology, as Sonderegger says, "without a loss of nerve."

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Living backwards: the conversion of memory

I’m reading Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter with some students this semester. The narrator, Hannah, is an old woman looking back on her life in Port William. Right at the start she says: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed…. This is my story, my giving of thanks.”

Normally we think about the Christian life as something that’s lived forwards in time: we want our orientation to the future, our plans and decisions and actions, to be converted to the gospel. But Hannah Coulter has reminded me that the Christian life is also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted. By any objective measure, Hannah’s life has not been easy. But she is able to look back on the whole thing in gratitude, without bitterness or blame. Her conversion to the gospel is most evident not in anything she does but in the way she remembers herself and tells her story.

It is the same with the first and greatest autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine’s conversion totally re-shaped not only his future but also his past. In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time, as the drama of life was actually occurring, but has now become the hidden meaning of everything that happened. “You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know you, and it is there that I find you when I remember and delight in you…. You have honoured my memory by making it your dwelling-place” (Confessions 10.24.35–25.36). If God dwells in memory, then the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence.

The Bible, too, is not just a promise for the future or a revelation of how to live. First and foremost the Bible is an aide-mémoire. It directs itself towards the sanctification of memory – the memory of God’s way with Israel, read backwards through the prism of the death and resurrection of the Saviour. “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6.6-9). We can have a future only if we know who we are, and we know who we are because of memory. I am told that some sufferers of head injury lose their ability to plan because they have lost their memory: the future exists only for those who have a past. 

The last novel I read with this student book group was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time…. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.”

God dwells in memory.

This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself, I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, “the fields and vast mansions of memory” (Confessions 10.8.12).

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