Sunday, 31 December 2006

Blogging highlights of 2006

The other day, Aaron asked me to list some of my own blogging highlights – so perhaps he should be blamed for this rather self-indulgent post. In any case, here are some of my own choices for Faith & Theology highlights in 2006.

Most fun post: The One Book Meme (it was fun to watch the extraordinarily rapid spread of this meme)

Most popular post: Bob Dylan’s Modern Times (this post was viewed thousands of times back in August and September, thanks to Google and a link from Expecting Rain)

Most Googled post: Kim Fabricius’ Essential Paintings for Theologians (this post continues to attract up to 1000 Google-searchers each month)

Post with the most comments:
The Worst Liturgical Invention (100 comments); and the post on Cancer and the Will of God also attracted a lot of discussion (64 comments)

My own favourite post: Kim Fabricius’ Ten Propositions on Prayer (this made a very deep impression on me, and I’ve continued to think about it ever since it was posted back in February)

Most difficult posts to write: Theology for Beginners (writing this series turned out to be much harder than I’d expected)

Most enjoyable posts to write: Ode to Church Dogmatics, as well as Barth and Bultmann: An Imagined Conversation (I really enjoyed these exercises in tongue-in-cheek creativity – it’s a fun way to waste a lazy hour)

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Highlights of 2006

Here are some of my personal choices for the highlights of 2006:

Best theology book (academic): Paul J. DeHart, The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Blackwell, 2006)

Best theology book (popular):
N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (SPCK, 2006)

Best journal article:
Bruce L. McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism,” IJST 8:3 (2006), 243-51

Best new theology blog:
Nothing New under the Sun

Best novel: Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night (John Murray, 2006)

Best TV series:
Bleak House

Best film:
Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men

Best album: Bob Dylan, Modern Times

Best place visited: Cabarita Beach, New South Wales

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all of you! Thanks for visiting Faith & Theology this year. There won’t be much posting here over the next week or so – I’ll be far too busy relaxing, reading novels, visiting the beach, eating mangoes, taking afternoon naps, and so on.

Now that F&T has switched to the New Blogger, I’m able to categorise posts. So I’ve gone back and added labels retrospectively to various older posts – for your interest, here are a few of the labels so far:

apokatastasis (2)
Balthasar (12)
Benedict XVI (12)
Bob Dylan (36)
children's theology (9)
creation (29)
Eberhard Jüngel (38)
election (11)
grace (15)
humour (19)
Jürgen Moltmann (11)
Karl Barth (91)
Kim Fabricius (41)
literature (10)
miracles (8)
Mozart (11)
pacifism (10)
prayer (17)
resurrection (26)
Robert W. Jenson (18)
Schleiermacher (17)
sermons (13)
top lists (43)
Trinity (9)
Wolfhart Pannenberg (13)

Saturday, 23 December 2006

The virgin birth

David has started an excellent new series – a historical survey of various theological views of the virgin birth. We were discussing that topic here at F&T last December, and I tried to persuade you that the “virgin birth” is grounded in Jesus’ resurrection.

What is grace?

“Grace is the presence, event, and revelation of what the human cannot think or do or reach or attain or grasp, but of what is, in virtue of its coming from God, the most simple, true and real of all things for those to whom it is addressed and who recognise it. Grace is the factual overcoming of the distinction between God and humanity, creator and creature, heaven and earth – something that cannot be grasped in any theory or brought about by any technique or human practice…. Grace is God’s sovereign intervention on the human’s behalf. The work and gift of this grace of his is the freedom of the children of God – their freedom to call upon him as Father.”

—Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4 Lecture Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 72.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Theology from a four-year-old

While my wife and four-year-old daughter were taking a walk, they saw a dead bird on the path, which led to this conversation:

—“Mind you don’t step on the dead bird, darling.”
—“A dead bird? Do birds die? Just like humans?”
—“Yes, bird die too. Everything that’s living has to die – even grass, flowers, trees. They all die eventually.”
—“But was Jesus the only one who died and rose again, so that now he’ll never ever ever have to die?”
—“That’s right.”
—“And how could he rise again? Was it because he’s bigger than anything else in the whole wide world?”
—“Yes, that’s right.”
Long pause, then:
—“So how could he die?”

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Reformed Theological Review

The new issue of the Reformed Theological Review 65:3 (2006) is dominated by theology-bloggers. Mike Bird has an article on “‘A Light to the Nations’ (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6): Inter-textuality and Mission Theology in the Early Church” (pp. 122-31). And Michael Jensen writes about “The Genesis of Hell: Eternal Torment in the Consciousness of Early Christianity” (pp. 132-48). The reviews section also includes my review of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2.

Michael Jensen’s article about hell is excellent; it concludes with the observation that “Christians have since very early days appealed to Hell and depicted Hell in ways quite unknown in the witness of their own Scriptures, and have at times drawn a perverse comfort from the imagined spectacle of the suffering of others” (p. 148).

Who's afraid of the analogia entis?

Millinerd raises this question in an interesting post.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

William Willimon

The celebrated preacher William Willimon now has his own blog: A Peculiar Prophet. There’s some good stuff there, including this post on consumerism:

“For me, one of the most moving moments is when people come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper. They shuffle forward and hold out their hands to receive the elements of communion. I look into their outstretched empty hands. I say, ‘I notice that your hands are empty, as if you were empty, needing some gift…. In this moment, you look touchingly dependent, as if your life would be nothing if you did not receive a gift.’ The good news of the gospel is that such bad news about us is the great good news about God.”

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Ten thoughts on the literal and the literary

by Kim Fabricius

1. The more literal, the less literary a person is likely to be – and vice versa. A survey of the reading habits of fundamentalists would be an interesting exercise. I suspect that they would score low on reading classical and Booker/Pulitzer prize fiction – and even lower on poetry. I wonder what they would make of William Empson’s seminal study Seven Types of Ambiguity. To plagiarise Paul, the literal crucifies, the literary resurrects: meaning walks through closed doors. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

2. It is an interesting fact that fundamentalism is predominantly a Protestant phenomenon, a reductio ad absurdum of the Reformers’ emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture to the exclusion of the medieval “fourfold vision” (Blake). Is there a lurking fear here of a connection between polyvalence and polytheism? How ironic that, on the contrary, an insistence on a single, solid, certain meaning – i.e. semantic closure – is indicative of idolatry. The burning bush is the horticulture of divine deconstruction, and the golden calf is bull.

3. Another interesting fact: the rise of Protestant literalism went hand in hand with the desacralisation of nature, which – the good news – entailed the rise of the natural sciences, but which also – the bad news – issued in the evacuation of God from the material world, soon followed the absence of God from the world of culture. Modernist atheism itself is the spawn of biblical literalism. And when belief did a bunk, it was the priesthood of poets that helped keep the rumour of transcendence alive.

4. So another connection: the “disenchantment” of nature (Weber) and the impoverishment of the imagination. Chesterton observed a “combination between logical completeness and spiritual contraction.” And he said: “Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so makes it finite.” There is also the spiritual contraction, the failure of imagination, of legalism and moralism. Hence R. S. Thomas’ description of Welsh Nonconformity as “the adroit castrator of art.”

5. There has been much discussion at F&T about the nature of theology as a science. Of course – this is a Barthian blog! But Barth himself was a master of stirring rhetoric and stunning imagery. And, of course, there was his passion for Mozart, and his admiration for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Melville’s Moby-Dick. Barth wasn’t so hot on the visual arts – a Protestant prejudice! – but the Church Dogmatics is a cathedral, stained glass windows and all. In short, if theology is a science, it is also an art.

6. Which should not be the least bit surprising. After all, God-talk is impossible without the deployment of analogy and metaphor, and the Bible is incomprehensible apart from a narrative hermeneutics. Is it not therefore a scandal that, until recent times, theology has been in thrall to an ontological and epistemological captivity – and inevitable that it would take a Catholic, Hans Urs von Balthasar, to write a theological aesthetics and dramatics? Is not faith itself an imaginative perception of reality?

7. Theological ethics – another test case. Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’ preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Indeed Richard B. Hays argues that a “symbolic world as context for moral discernment” is fundamental to the entire New Testament. “The kingdom of God is like this.” Enter the story, work it out – then act it out!

8. Follow the trajectory to virtue ethics. The accent is on agency and action, dispositions and desire, time and telos. Rules are not excluded, but they function heuristically, as “perspicuous descriptive summaries of good judgments” (Martha Nussbaum), to inculcate habits appropriate to the development of Christ-like character. Moral theology works best when it tells the stories of the saints. Virtue ethics is narrative ethics, where the script is unfinished and improvisation is essential. The Christian life is jazz.

9. One of the great filmic send-ups of biblical literalism: the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The camera pans to Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and then to a group at a distance where our Lord’s voice doesn’t quite carry. “Blessed are the cheese makers,” one character hears. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” asks a woman. “Obviously it is not to be taken literally,” her husband replies; “it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

10. Moral: a cultureless theology is an ecclesiastical disaster – and a “two culture” (C.P. Snow) theology is not much better. If we are ignorant of science we lapse into Idiocy 101-102: Creationism; or Imbecility 201-202: Intelligent Design. But if we are ignorant of literature, mere ignorance becomes downright dangerous – witness the nonsensical interpretations of biblical apocalypse by the religious right and its pernicious influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East. If pastors should be community theologians, community theologians should be writers-in-residence, exercising what Yoder called “word-care,” and teaching their folk how to read.

Monday, 18 December 2006

The best education blog

Congratulations to Michael Bérubé for thrashing the rest of us in the finals of the Best Education Blog Award.

In a bizarre twist, the defunct homeschool blog, Spunky Homeschool, came close to winning thanks to a massive “homeschoolers unite” meme. And then, in a further twist, it was found that enthusiastic supporters of both Bérubé and Spunky Homeschool had been cheating – so about 1500 illegitimate votes were docked. In the end, though, the academics won the day, and Michael Bérubé cleaned up with 38.62% of the total 16,000 votes.

As for Faith & Theology.... Well, everyone knows that we Aussies don’t like losing – so I won’t even mention the tiny percentage of votes that this blog received.... (On the bright side, I think we can safely assume that no theologians were cheating on behalf of this blog!)

Anyway, thanks to everyone who voted, and congratulations to Professor Bérubé, who even managed to defeat the formidable army of homeschooled Christian soldiers that rallied against him.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

In Mary's song of praise and peace

by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: University)

In Mary’s song of praise and peace
    we call “Magnificat,”
a peasant maiden mocked the claims
    of earth’s proud plutocrats.

An angel whispered, “You’re the one
    who’ll carry heaven’s child.”
The girl, in fearful faith, said “Yes!”
    but barely forced a smile.

She went to see a kindred soul,
    who praised what God would do;
yet Mary felt a deep unease
    about the coming coup.

But then she paused and prayed and thought,
    “Why am I full of doubt?
The Lord is good, I’ll trust his ways,
    though they seem roundabout.”

Her heart welled up, it overflowed
    with firm, determined joy,
because the Lord would save the world
    through such a subtle ploy.

“The poor will eat, parade the streets,”
    she sang, “and bands will play;
the pity is, with empty hands,
    the rich will rue the day.”

Shut up, it's Christmas!

Edmund has some sobering words about God’s advent and the meaning of the “silent night.”

Saturday, 16 December 2006

What is hell?

“Hell is the name of that false history against which the true story, in Christ, is told, and it is exposed as the true destination of all our violence, by the light of the resurrection, even as Christ breaks open the gates of hell and death. Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history….

“Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell…. [H]ell is the purest interiority…. [I]t is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface….

“[H]ell is no place within creation, no event, though its history is everywhere told, its dominion everywhere suffered.”

—David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 399-400.

The hermeneutics of jazz

Some nice discussion of theology and jazz at Per Caritatem and Robertson House Collection.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Theology with Terry Eagleton

There are some really superb theological insights in Terry Eagleton’s much-discussed review of Richard Dawkins. Here’s a passage that’s well worth reflecting on:

“Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

“The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist….

“The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people.”

A note on Eberhard Jüngel

According to this news report, Eberhard Schmidt-Aßmann will succeed Eberhard Jüngel as the new director of the Forschungsstätte der Evangelischen Studiengemeinschaft (FEST). Jüngel, who turned 72 last week, had been directing this Heidelberg research centre since his retirement in 2003.

And speaking of Jüngel, this new book by Christopher Holmes sounds interesting – a study representing three theological generations: Barth, Jüngel and Krötke.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Theology for beginners (22): Glorification

This is the final part of the series: the whole series is here.

Summary: At the End, God deifies all creatures by raising them up to participate in the movement of his own life; thus we are summoned to join with all creatures in the harmonious symphony of God’s triune love.

The goal that awaits us all is participation in God. Our stories are lifted up and integrated into the story of God’s own identity. This is precisely what “salvation” means. Our little stories are broken and fragmented, but God heals them and makes them whole. Our stories are without meaning, without narrative closure, but God completes them, so that our lives are flooded with the radiance of his own truth, his own meaning, his own reality.

The integration of our stories in the story of God may thus be described as our “deification.” In Jesus, God becomes one with us so that we can be one with him. This does not mean, of course, that God erases the distinction between himself and his creatures. It does not mean that God eliminates our finitude or our temporality. Rather, it means that God elevates his creatures to participate in the inexhaustible riches of his own life as it has unfolded in the history of Jesus. God raises us up to enter into the movement of his own divine identity as Father, Son and Spirit.

We might speak, therefore, of a narrative deification of all created reality. The stories of all creatures are made to participate in God’s story – each particular fragmented and finite narrative is woven into the perfect and infinitely detailed fabric of God’s own identity. All that we are is gathered up into the vibrant and differentiated interplay of the life of God.

Thus our creatureliness, our temporality, our embodiedness are elevated and preserved. We don’t enter into some sort of timeless existence, some disembodied afterlife: on the contrary, it is precisely this life, this embodied existence, this temporal history that God raises up and deifies. All our particular life-histories – just as they are! – are taken up into the divine dance of God’s eternity.

Far from erasing the distinction between creator and creatures, therefore, God deifies his creatures by bringing them together and weaving them into the living event of his own deity. The same Spirit who creates difference now preserves and upholds our otherness and our finitude – but he transforms all this into something wholly new. Through the Spirit, God glorifies all his creatures in the light of his own glory. He raises us up in the radiance of his presence. He transforms all his creatures – just as they are! – into a “new creation,” just as through the Spirit he also transformed the dead body of Jesus into the new body of resurrected life.

As God’s creatures, we therefore remain what we really are – but we are transposed into a different key. We retain all our difference and all our particularity vis-à-vis God – but we are now woven into the fabric of God’s identity. We are no longer separate from God. As different creatures with different stories, we continue to speak with our own unique voices – but the Spirit now brings all our voices together into a single harmony of praise and delight. The Spirit integrates all our life-movements into the single dance of the divine life – a dance in which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father through the communion-giving presence of the Spirit.

This triune harmony is the fitting goal of all creation. To be a creature is to be summoned to participate in this harmonious celebration of the love of God’s triunity. In the End, when all creation is raised up before God, when all that exists joins together in this single harmony, we will hear this sound as the sound of God’s own life, the sound of Father, Son and Spirit who dwell together in a symphony of joy and delight that is always new. In the End, we will hear this sound as the sound of love, the love that is God’s own deity. The end of all our ways is to find our place within this song of love, to find ourselves lifted up into the movement of God’s music, in harmony at last with God and with all things.

Or to put it another way: the end of all our ways is the vision of God, the sight of God’s own radiant beauty and piercing clarity, the sight of all things flooded with the light of this beauty. The end of all our ways is to see this glory – the glory of the Father who loves the Son, and of the Son who gives himself to the Father, and of the Spirit who opens Father and Son to one another and to us in the joy of love.

The end of all our ways is this joyous completion, this glorification, this “new creation” of harmony and delight. At the End, there is only music – the music of the triune God who loves all his creatures and with love gathers them into the life of his kingdom.

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998).
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2, § 47; IV/3, §73.
  • Fergusson, David and Marcel Sarot, eds. The Future as God’s Gift (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 395-411.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 309-69.
  • Jones, Joe R. A Grammar of Christian Faith, Vol. 2 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), pp. 689-748.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 527-646.
  • Smith, Byron. “Heaven: Not the End of the World” (2006).

God's Yes in the No of the cross

“Although the Crucified One is abandoned by people and by God, he is nevertheless not isolated or turned away from God and the world. On the contrary, in this death God and humanity are involved together in a singular way, as God’s Yes is hidden under his No to the sinner.... Therefore the death of the Crucified One in abandonedness is not only his own death, but also the death of God and the death of all.”

—Gerhard Ebeling, Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens, Vol. 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1982), p. 202.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

The goodness of God

for Byron

“Jesus Christ means: God, not against the human, or – which would be even worse – without him, but God with him and for him as his Friend and Helper and Saviour and Guarantor. Jesus Christ means: God himself becomes the human’s Neighbour and Brother…. Jesus Christ is in person the faithfulness of God which draws near to the human’s unfaithfulness and overpowers it, as God the creator not only confirms and maintains his covenant with his creature but once and for all leads it to its goal and secures it against every threat. Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of the world to God which does not merely look and go beyond human sin but sets it aside…. He is the kingdom of God which with its comfort and healing has approached and invaded torn humanity suffering from a thousand wounds, and put an end to its misery…. In a word: he is the goodness of God.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, pp. 798-99 (KD IV/3, pp. 913-14).

An all-star cast

Douglas Knight alerts us to a new international conference: Orthodox Readings of Augustine at Fordham, NY, 14-16 June 2007.

The conference is organised by Aristotle Papanikolaou, and it has an extraordinary line-up of speakers:

Andrew Louth
Lewis Ayres
John Behr
David Bradshaw
Brian Daley, S.J.
Elizabeth Fisher
Carol Harrison
David Bentley Hart
Joseph Lienhard, S.J.
Jean-Luc Marion
John McGuckin
John Milbank
David Tracy

Monday, 11 December 2006

New theology blogs

These days, there are too many new theology blogs to keep up with. But here are two really good ones that I’ve noticed:

Intellectus Fidei
Robertson House Collection

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Karl Barth: God in Action

Karl Barth, God in Action: Theological Addresses (1936; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 143 pp.

The other day I mentioned the series of Barth reprints published by Wipf & Stock. Here’s another very nice one: God in Action.

This volume offers several of Barth’s theological addresses, all of them first published as individual pamphlets in the Theologische Existenz Heute series during the early 1930s. The addresses were collected in an attempt to give an overall impression of the emerging shape of Barth’s theological work. Underlying all the addresses is an ecclesiological emphasis: thus there are chapters on revelation, the church, theology as a function of the church, the ministry of the Word of God, and the Christian as witness.

The best part of the book is Chapter 2, simply entitled “Theology.” Here, as in the Church Dogmatics, Barth describes theology as “the fairest” of all the sciences, and as the science “closest to human reality” (p. 39). As an academic discipline, theology “is a masterpiece, as well-planned and yet as bizarre as the cathedrals of Cologne and Milan” (p. 39).

Yet at the same time, Barth observes: “In no other science is it so easy to be caught in despair, or, what is worse, to end in arrogant overconfidence” (p. 39). No other science “can be so monstrous and so boresome” (p. 40). Barth thus makes the dialectical point that theology is “the freest and yet the most restricted of all the sciences” (p. 40) – the most beautiful and yet the most perilous.

Why is it that theology is so often monstrous or boring or conceited? In Barth’s view, the answer is simple: all the “conceited pride” and “monstrosity” and “boresomeness” have their basis in the fact that “theology has not dared to be itself” (p. 43). When it dares to be itself, theology justifies itself: it proves its own possibility and necessity “simply by existing!” (p. 43).

And in Barth’s view, theology indeed has a necessary role to perform: “Theology is … a function in the liturgy of the Church” (p. 49). It helps to keep the church faithful to the Word of God, and thus “a Church without an orderly theology must sooner or later become a pagan church” (p. 50).

All the addresses collected here have the vivid directness of spoken communication. So if you find the thick rhetoric of the Church Dogmatics daunting or discouraging, this book offers a very direct and very lively way of encountering some of Barth’s major themes.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

My research

I occasionally get queries from readers who want to know about my own research and publications. So I’ve just created this new page with details about my recent and forthcoming publications.

Hans Küng's peace prize

As Chris Tilling notes, the great Catholic theologian Hans Küng has been awarded the Lew Kopelew Prize for his “tireless efforts towards a better understanding between the world’s great religions.” The prize is awarded for contributions to peace and human rights.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Weblog awards: cast your vote!

Faith & Theology has been nominated for the “Best Educational Blog” award in the 2006 Weblog Awards. If you’d like to vote, just click this logo and you’ll be taken to the voting page:

The 2006 Weblog Awards

Karl Barth: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

For the past few years, Wipf & Stock Publishers have been producing attractive, affordable reprints of various out-of-print volumes by Karl Barth. They kindly sent me a couple of these reprints, one of which is:

Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, foreword by John Updike, with a new foreword by Paul Louis Metzger (1986; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 60 pp.

Barth’s devotion to Mozart is well known. He began each day listening to Mozart; he included Mozart in the Church Dogmatics; and he remarked: “if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, St Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher” (p. 16). In fact, towards the end of his life Barth even experienced his first and only mystical vision: a vision of Mozart gazing at him benignly from the stage during a concert. (Hans Urs von Balthasar was very impressed by this vision!)

In this little book – originally published in 1956 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth – Barth collected some of his various writings and addresses about his beloved Mozart. With wonderful hyperbole, he describes the musical uniqueness of Mozart, suggesting that Mozart’s “characteristic basic ‘sound’” might in fact be “the primal sound of music absolutely” – Mozart “struck this ‘tone’ in its timelessly valid form” (p. 28).

Theologically, too, Barth speaks of Mozart’s utter uniqueness: “In the case of Mozart, we must certainly assume that the dear Lord had a special, direct contact with him” (p. 26). His music “evidently comes from on high” (p. 33) – indeed, Barth “leaves open” the question “whether Mozart could possibly have been an angel” (p. 45).

Above all, it is the dialectical character of Mozart’s music that Barth admires. In this music, everything comes to expression: “heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, … the Virgin Mary and the demons” (p. 34). Mozart simply contains and includes all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of “balance” or “indifference” (like the balance of Schleiermacher’s system!) – it is “a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall …, in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present No” (p. 55).

In all this, however, Mozart “does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” Unlike Bach, he has no doctrine or message, and thus “he does not force anything on the listener …; he simply leaves him free” (p. 37). This note of freedom is what most impresses Barth. “Mozart’s music always sounds unburdened, effortless, light. This is why it unburdens, releases, and liberates us” (p. 47).

As you can tell, this is a beautiful book, important for what it reveals both about Mozart and about Barth himself. But the book would also be well worth getting just for the brilliant foreword by John Updike. Updike rightly highlights the deep affinity between the music of Mozart and the theology of Barth: “Those who have not felt the difficulty of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music” (p. 12).

Thursday, 7 December 2006

John Milton on the calling of the disabled

England’s greatest poet, John Milton, suffered from glaucoma, which led to his total blindness by the age of 43. In one of his sonnets (Sonnet XIX), Milton struggled to come to terms with his blindness in relation to his profound sense of personal vocation. He believed God had called him to be England’s poet and prophet: but what would become of this vocation now that he was blind?

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In this sonnet, Milton finds resolution not by downplaying the severity of his impairment, nor by giving up his sense of divine calling, but by enlarging his understanding of what it means to be called by God. God has many servants who can carry out his will. He does not “need” any person’s talents and abilities, since all such abilities are already “his own gifts.” Our role, then, is simply to offer service in God’s royal court; our role is to be ready to serve whenever God might call. Such service is performed not only by those who “speed” over land and sea; it is equally performed by those who merely “wait” in willing readiness: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

In this way, Milton both lamented his blindness and affirmed the integrity and authenticity of his vocation. To be called by God is not the same as achieving things for God. To be called by God is to wait on God, to be ready for God’s voice.

Mozart: the triumph of genius

Jon Pott, Editor-in-Chief of Eerdmans Publishing, has written a lovely essay about the genius of Mozart:

“No composer on earth has inspired more talk about heaven than Mozart. One of his celebrated 20th-century biographers, Alfred Einstein, managed to call him a mere ‘visitor on earth,’ and even Shaw, not a reverent man, opined that the two priestly arias of Sarastro in The Magic Flute were the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God. Whatever the divinizing excesses of such language, Mozart has probably received more attention from theologians than any other composer save Bach.”

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Jean-Luc Marion

At Per Caritatem, Cynthia is posting an excellent guest-series by Derek Morrow on Jean-Luc Marion.

The vocation of people with severe disabilities

Last night Kim Fabricius went to hear a lecture by the excellent scholar Frances Young. Professor Young has a severely disabled son, and her lecture was on “The Vocation of People with Severe Learning Disabilities.” Kim gave a response afterwards, which he has posted here – he says:

Against conventional theodicies, and above all against a culture that has lost its way – where its answer to the question, “What are people for?” is, “For autonomy and control, for health and beauty, for performance and productivity” – Professor Young has lodged a considerable critique. Human beings, she says, are made for friendship, and human communities are made for hospitality. And it would seem to be the vocation of so-called disabled people to take this gospel to so-called independent, fit, and achieving folk.

It is not, observe, a question of the abled bringing help to the disabled – just the reverse: the disabled are the ones who bring help to the abled by showing that we are all, one way or another, limited, broken, and needy flesh, who are who we are only in interdependent relationships where asking for help is a sign not of our weakness but of our created and redeemed humanity.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Book reviews

Books for review may be addressed to:

Dr Benjamin Myers
School of Theology, Charles Sturt University
16 Masons Drive
North Parramatta NSW 2151
Australia


F&T book reviews include the following:

The drama of liturgy

“A liturgy, whether long or short, complicated or simple, either hangs together as a dramatic performance or has no coherence at all. Lamentably, the latter is very much the state of much of what one experiences in contemporary pews. I do not know if the sheer miscellaneous character of our would-be liturgies is a reason why people decreasingly attend them, but it would be a reason why I did not, were I not driven by fear of divine retribution....

“Those who stay away and the congregations who try to attract them agree in one perception: nothing much happens in our churches of a Sunday morning. But what is supposed to happen? I suggest that much of our difficulty is that we have forgotten that the Christ-drama is supposed to happen, in whatever high, low or intermediate sort of production.”

—Robert W. Jenson, “Christ as Culture 3: Christ as Drama,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6:2 (2004), pp. 199-200.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Podcast: Advent Sunday with Bob Dylan

In celebration of Advent Sunday, I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s extraordinary gospel song, “When He Returns” (1979):

“Of every earthly plan that be known to man,
He is unconcerned.
He’s got plans of His own, to set up His throne
When He returns.”

So why don’t you join me? Kick back and listen to this moving live performance – an unofficial recording from 16 November 1979. To listen, click here; or to get the podcast feed, click here.

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Michael Pomazansky: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology

Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, 3rd edition (Platina: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005), 434 pp. (with thanks to the publishers for a review copy).

Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (available now in a third edition with extensive new footnotes) has long been a significant textbook of conservative Orthodox theology. Pomazansky was born in western Russia in 1888, and he studied at the pre-revolutionary Kiev Theological Academy from 1908 to 1912. He served as a theologian and missionary in Russia and then, after the revolution, as a priest and editor in Poland and Germany. In 1949 he moved to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, where he remained until his death in 1988 (just days before his 100th birthday!).

For Western Christians, encounters with Orthodoxy can be a bewildering experience. As Georges Florovsky once remarked, while Catholics and Protestants speak a similar language, there is fundamentally no “common universe of discourse” between East and West. This does not mean that understanding is impossible – but it explains the great difficulties involved in such dialogue, and it helps to account for the comparatively slow progress of ecumenical understanding between East and West.

In Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Pomazansky himself is more or less closed to Western influences: he refers to Catholic and Protestant ideas only where a polemical point is in order; and much of the book is concerned with implicit or explicit controversy with more liberal Orthodox theologians like Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov.

In spite of this, however, Pomazansky’s work provides valuable insight into the distinctiveness of Orthodox dogma in contrast to Western patterns of thought. Indeed, Pomazansky is at his best when he is engaged in critique of Catholic dogma (see for instance pp. 89-93 on the Filioque), or when he explains that an apparent similarity between Eastern and Western views is in fact masking a much deeper divergence.

His criticisms of “legal” patterns of thought in Western doctrine are especially incisive (and, to my mind, essentially correct). He rightly critiques Western doctrines which define redemption as “satisfaction of wrath,” for instance (pp. 213-15); and in an excellent chapter on sin, he criticises the Western tendency towards a “very legalistic, formal” doctrine of original sin and inherited guilt (pp. 162-69). Again, in a very fine discussion of Mariology (pp. 189-97), he notes that the Catholic dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption are logically derived from a misleadingly forensic doctrine of original sin.

In contrast to more progressive tendencies in modern Orthodox thought, Pomazansky’s is a highly conservative theology. Indeed, his entire conception of the theological task is one of conservation: dogmatics consists in “the confirmation in the consciousness of the faithful of the truths of the faith which have been confessed by the Church from the beginning” (p. 46), so that it is out of place to reveal “new aspects” or “new understanding[s]” of dogma (p. 47). Indeed, dogma itself cannot “develop,” since there is simply “nothing to add to the teaching of faith handed down” (p. 355). From a Protestant perspective, of course, one could easily connect such themes to a certain conception of divine eternity and immutability: “For God there is neither past nor future; there is only the present” (p. 67); “God is perfection, and every change … is unthinkable” (p. 72).

Nevertheless, even such conservative emphases give expression to the depth and beauty of theological reflection, for, in Pomazansky’s view, “theologizing is not an abstract mental exercise, … but a dwelling of one’s thought in Divine truths, a directing of the mind and heart towards God” (p. 48). And in its best moments, Pomazansky’s work is indeed characterised by a spirit of reverence and adoration – something one does not always encounter in a typical wissenschaftlich work of Protestant dogmatics! To believe in God, Pomazansky writes, means “not only to acknowledge God with the mind, but also to strive towards Him with the heart…. Christian faith is a mystical revelation in the human soul. It is broader, more powerful, closer to reality than thought” (p. 53).

Admittedly, one can find more exciting and more creative Orthodox thinkers – Lossky, Schmemann and Meyendorff, for instance; or, more recently, John Zizioulas and David Bentley Hart. But for a sober, serene and straightforward exposition of Byzantine dogma, Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology remains valuable and instructive.

Biblical Studies Carnival XII

Jim West has done a swell job on the latest Biblical Studies Carnival. And no one who knows Jim will be surprised to hear that he even found a way to include Zwingli!

Quiz

It looks as though Kim (“Kim Fantabulous”) and I (“Been Mires”) both feature in this humorous new quiz: Which blogger are you?

Friday, 1 December 2006

Theology for beginners (21): Completion

Summary: At the End, our broken stories are lifted up and integrated into the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are thus included in the story of God’s deity.

Throughout this series, we have been speaking (or rather trying to speak) of Christian faith from the perspective of the gospel. The gospel narrates certain events as the happening of God’s own deity. A certain Jewish man is crucified outside Jerusalem and is raised to new life – this is the event of God’s deity, the event in which God identifies himself, the event in which God is God. In speaking of various main themes, therefore – God, creation, salvation and community – we have tried to take our bearings from this event, so that our talk about God is guided not by any prior conceptions of what a “divine being” should be like, but by God’s own self-definition in the story of Jesus.

In turning now to our final theme – traditionally called “eschatology” or “last things” – we are really not taking up a new topic, but are simply turning back to the same event in a new way. At this point, we are talking again of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the event of God’s deity. But we are now concerned explicitly with the questions: What is the significance of this event for the ultimate destiny of our lives? What does this event lead us to expect from the future?

The story of Jesus, we have said, narrates reality. It is the context of meaning within which all other things become “true” and “real.” This is because God has eternally elected this story to be his own story, the story of his identity. And the story of God’s identity has a specific conclusion: the crucified Jesus is raised to new life. Further, as we have noted repeatedly, the story of Jesus is also a story about ourselves: in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead our own stories find their proper conclusion. We can therefore say quite comprehensively: the end of all our stories is this risen one; the future that awaits us all is this lowly God, this exalted human, this one whom the Father vindicated through the Spirit by raising to new life.

Our future is the “place” where the risen Jesus reigns as Lord in perfect fellowship with the Father through the Spirit. And so even now this future floods our lives with the light of hope and meaning. Even now, we receive our identity from this future.

At present, all our individual and collective stories are marked by fragmentation, confusion, disconnectedness. Our stories lack closure and unity. They are broken stories which lack the harmony of a fitting end. But the gospel tells us a new story – it tells us that God has raised up Jesus “for us and for our salvation.” Our own broken stories thus receive new harmony from this story. Through the power of the Spirit, our own stories are made to cohere in the story of Jesus. Where our lives were fragmented, they are now integrated. Where we were without hope and without a future, we now receive the cohesion of a fitting end from the future of the risen Jesus.

When we speak of the End, therefore, we are speaking of this narrative fittingness that integrates our stories into the story of Jesus. In the final act of a play, all the preceding acts are brought together in a coherent dramatic unity. So too, the final End that we await is the act by which God’s Spirit gathers all our individual, fragmented stories and pieces them together. The Spirit comes from the Father and integrates us into the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection – which is to say, into the event of God’s own life. By including all our little broken stories in his own story, God therefore raises us to participate in his life. Our stories become part of God’s story – yes, part of God’s identity!

Here and now in the present, the Christian community is the place where this narrative cohesion is already anticipated in advance. Here and now – in proclamation, in baptism and in Eucharist – we re-tell and re-enact the story of Jesus as the dramatic unity of the whole created world. Here and now, in acts of justice, beauty and peace, we anticipate the sheer goodness of this story’s conclusion – a cosmic goodness in which chaos, violence and injustice are finally overcome. Here and now, as we live in the freedom of the Spirit and share in each other’s lives, we experience – or rather, we are – the foretaste of the joyful freedom that this story promises. In such ways, the Christian community thus performs God’s deity as an event whose dramatic unity already integrates our lives here and now, and whose conclusion will finally be revealed as the hope and the meaning of all things.

Our existence is thus placed in a new context, transposed into a new key, and we are set free by the Spirit to participate in the unceasing harmony of God’s own thrice-repeated deity. In this divine harmony, all created things find their meaning, their place, their fittingness. And so, in the end, all creatures are brought together in this surprising and joyful dramatic unity, this story of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, this story of the God who is love.

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Theo-Drama, Vol. 5 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998).
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2, § 47; IV/3, §73.
  • Fergusson, David and Marcel Sarot, eds. The Future as God’s Gift (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000).
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 395-411.
  • Jenson, Robert W. God after God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), pp. 157-79.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Coming of God (London: SCM, 1996).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 527-646.
  • Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 2 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1963), pp. 203-216.

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