Monday, 31 March 2008

Magnolia and apocalyptic: a plea for help

In a rash moment, I agreed to give a lecture in a couple of weeks on apocalyptic theology and popular culture. Instead of talking about boring or stupid forms of contemporary apocalypticism, I thought I’d discuss cultural instantiations of Pauline apocalyptic (following J. Louis Martyn’s interpretation of Paul). Initially, I thought I’d talk about the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and the music of Tom Waits. But now I’m wondering whether I might focus instead on Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia.

So does anyone have any good ideas? Or any reading suggestions for a theological engagement with Magnolia? I’ll be preparing this lecture on a wing and a prayer, so I’d be grateful for any help!

Here and there

Over at the excellent new blog, Christians in Context, Norman has started a series of “theologian trading cards” – the first one is Augustine. Another promising new blog is Scripture & Theology. And our own Chris Tilling (who is sick, poor boy) has a very helpful review-article in the latest issue of Zygon: “Engaging Science in the Mode of Trust: Hans Küng’s The Beginning of All Things,” Zygon 43:1 (2008), 201–216.

Meanwhile, Jason has a nice quote from Jacques Ellul on hell, while Aaron discusses resurrection and imagination. Halden warns us against hasty theological debate, and Chris has 10 propositions on confessions and dogmatics.

And if you haven’t yet seen Stuff White People Like, you should definitely have a gander – it’s highly entertaining! Oh, and if you’re in New York this week, you might like to go along to hear Charles Taylor.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

The A-Z of faith: a sermon for after Easter

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I still have this vivid memory, from when I was in primary school. I’d been a naughty boy, and my punishment was to stay after school and write lines on the blackboard. When I had finished I headed home. I always caught the bus to and from school – those big yellow ones – so I’d never walked home before. It was only half a mile, and straight, no complications, nothing to worry about, but shortly after I’d started off I got scared. It looked different, walking from bussing. Was I on the right road? Was I going the right way? It began to get dark. My doubts and fears mounted. In a panic I began to run, dropping my schoolbag, picking it up, running on, faster, faster. And then suddenly LaRue Drive appeared. I was home. But ever after Southdown Road has filled me with mixed feelings of dread and nostalgia.

Banbury Road, Oxford was another significant road in my life. Cycling down to Mansfield College for early morning prayers – or not! Pushing Karl in his pushchair into Summertown – actually pushing with one hand while holding a book in the other, often stopping to mark what I’d just read. And out walking with Angie in the first flush of love, holding hands as we walked passed the shops.

And now, for the last twenty-five years, 17 Carnglas Road, Swansea. I’ve seen it tarmacked, residential parking put in, turned from a two-way into a one-way street. I’ve walked it, run it, cycled it, and driven it. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

A selection, then, from the A – Z of the journey of my life. But what about the journey of faith? Faith too has an A – Z. Let’s dip into it. There will be some significant roads there that we may or may not have travelled – indeed that we may be travelling now.

One I’m sure we’ve all been on – but I hope we’ve left behind – is the Yellow Brick Road. The Yellow Brick Road that leads to the Emerald City, where the Munchkins say the Wizard lives, the Wizard who can grant all our wishes. You know the place, “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.” Yes, we’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. But, as we all know, the Wizard turns out to be an imposture, a humbug, a pathetic little old man who shouts into a megaphone for supernatural effect, but who can’t grant wishes – a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Lion.

I wonder if you’ve ever recognised what a clever little atheistic film The Wizard of Oz is. It’s a celluloid homage to Sigmund Freud, who claimed that religion is an illusion driven by wishful thinking, God a human projection into the heavens of the ideal father we never had, who holds our hand by day and watches over us by night. A sheer figment, said Freud, like the Wizard, but a gripping “universal obsessional neurosis” (he called it) nonetheless. Rather the fantasy of Oz than the harsh reality of Kansas. Or is it? At the end of The Wizard of Oz Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.” Life on the farm may be harsh, but at least it’s real. Do we really prefer to live in the fool’s paradise of an infantile faith?

As a matter of fact, I reckon many people do. The Yellow Brick Road is the way of many a faith journey. We want a God who provides and protects, a celestial insurance agent who guarantees rewards as long as we pay the premium of keeping the commandments, going to church, saying our prayers. Isn’t that the case? How else could we angrily ask, “Why me?” when bad things happen to the pretty good person I am. That the righteous should suffer is not in the contract. In extreme situations people even “lose their faith”. But what sort of faith in what kind of God have they lost? Isn’t it precisely the sort of faith in the kind of God that Freud critiqued? A fantasy faith in the Wizard of Oz? But shouldn’t we then say, “Good riddance!” Hasn’t Freud done us a favour? Simone Weil spoke of a “purifying kind of atheism” which exposes “consolations” as an obstacle to faith in the true God. But to come to this God we must go by another way than the Yellow Brick Road.

Back to the A – Z. Ah, here’s an alternative route, one we’d all like to take: it’s called the Damascus Road. How we envy Paul! A flash of light, a voice from heaven, an awesome experience of the risen, living Christ. I was blind, now I see, not the slightest possibility of doubt. Wouldn’t it be marvellous! Some have a similar kind of conversion experience, but most of us don’t. Most of us can’t find the Damascus Road even with a map. But perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps the Damascus Road isn’t the easy street it’s often made out to be.

Paul himself certainly found out that it led into some very mean streets indeed. We speak of Paul’s “conversion”, but actually it was more a “calling”. Paul speaks of it in the same way that Jeremiah spoke of his calling to be a prophet – a calling from which Jeremiah tried his darnedest to excuse himself. It did, after all, lead him to forty years of a failure of a ministry, demanding, demeaning, demoralising, rejected as he was by the very people to whom God sent him. And Paul too had a torrid time of it: dangerous journeys, bitter enemies, disloyal friends, disobedient churches. When he’s asked to show his apostolic credentials – how interesting – he doesn’t boast about his experience on the Damascus Road, rather he itemises his sufferings. God in Christ suffered for him, should he not expect to suffer for God in Christ? Do you really wish to travel the Damascus Road? Be careful what you wish for lest your wish come true.

Which takes us back to the A – Z of Faith, to locate one final road: the Emmaus Road. It runs parallel with the Damascus Road, but in the opposite direction to the Yellow Brick Road. It’s a road not of childish desires and pipe dreams but of encounter and exposure. It begins not with Paul’s huffing-and-puffing against the church but with grief, yet not with just a personal tragedy – though no doubt Cleopas and his unnamed companion, his wife perhaps, or a close friend, were nursing a deep sense of loss at the death of Jesus – but, more than that, they were in despair over a national catastrophe: “we had hoped that he was going to be the one to set Israel free.” Jesus had promised so much – nothing less than the kingdom of God – liberation from oppression, peace on earth – and it had all come to nothing. Imagine their feelings – their shock and confusion, their fear for the future, their sense of utter hopelessness. They staked everything on the prophet from Nazareth – and they lost. Their life is in tatters, and so is the cause they believed in and committed to. Here was a chance for the world to be good just and good again – and suddenly it is violently snuffed out. In my own life: the assassinations, in 1968, one after the other, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War Movements suddenly in disarray, the sense of total disillusionment. And Ahdaf Soueif, in her wonderful novel The Map of Love, speaks of how, “after the war of ‘67, a whole generation [of Egyptians] had seemed to sense what the defeat would do to them, how it would stretch its ill shadow over all the years of their lives.”

They are inadequate analogies, I know, but they’re the closest I can come to this combination of personal loss and collective collapse experienced by Cleopas and his companion, walking among the ruins of their lives. No lightning thunders from the clear sky to direct them to Damascus. And the road is dirt and dust, no yellow brick paving. But then a stranger overtakes them and warms hearts gone cadaverously cold. How? By interpreting the scriptures to them, by explaining that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer, that God does not protect us from suffering but rather uses suffering to bring healing and salvation. We don’t usually recognise it at the time, nor do we recognise that endings are always new beginnings, even as it was only with hindsight that Cleopas and his companion began to piece events together. But then, over supper, the penny drops, and they recognise the crucified and risen Lord as, with familiar gestures, he breaks bread and shares wine – and then vanishes. Where? On ahead, of course, into the future, to leads us on – Jesus is always going further – though he will continue to join his people, for a while, wherever they read the Bible and have a meal. It’s a promise.

How foolish, childish, disheartened we can be! How slow to believe, how quick to lose our nerve, how we would always rather be elsewhere, looking for shortcuts on the Yellow Brick Road of consolation, or the Damascus Road of “religious” experience. Let us be content, nay, let us rejoice in being exactly where we are – which is always the hardest thing – for Christ the stranger is with us, sneaking up behind and then striding on ahead, on the road to and from Emmaus, otherwise known as Swansea.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The suspension of Peter Enns

Looks like there’s never been a better time not to work at Westminster Theological Seminary. The letter from the chairman of the board reads: “After a full day of deliberation, the Board of Trustees took the following action by decisive vote: That for the good of the Seminary Professor Peter Enns be suspended at the close of this school year…” A full day of deliberation? Maybe next time they should take two days.

Anyway, here’s the book that caused all the trouble. And you can find links to various reviews and discussions here and here.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Censoring F&T

Speaking of politics and democracy, a friend of mine was in China a couple of weeks ago, and he informed me that F&T is a blocked site within the People’s Republic of China. I was flattered, of course. But perhaps the Chinese government is unaware of the numerous practical and material benefits of F&T – as illustrated below:

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Democracy's finest hour

Here in my home state of Queensland, a mayor has been elected by having his name drawn out of a hat. I think this is a major step forwards for democratic procedure, and I hope the Democrats in the US will have the good sense to adopt the same method (tossing a coin is also acceptable).

Alternatively, the brilliant TV series Deadwood also contains many great insights about how to form and maintain a government (WARNING: if an avalanche of foul language might offend you, then you’d better not click that link...).

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Hart on Williams

In the latest TLS, David Bentley Hart reviews Rowan Williams’ brilliant collection of essays, Wrestling with Angels. The best part of the review is the word “pogonotrophy” – Hart has been waiting his whole life for the chance to use that word in a sentence, and he does so here to great effect.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

O Roma felice! O Roma nobile!

I have only three things to say about this conference: Oh. My. God.

To get you in the mood, here’s a stirring passage from Giorgio Agamben: “The Pauline decomposition of messianic presence is similar to the one in Kafka’s extraordinary theologoumenon, in which the Messiah does not come on the day of his arrival, but only on the day after; not on the last day but on the very last day…. I found a perfect parallel in an Islamic text that reads, ‘My coming and the hour are so close to one another that the hour of my coming risks arriving before me.’ The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable. For this reason, each instant may be, to use [Walter] Benjamin’s words, the ‘small door through which the Messiah enters’.” (Agamben, The Time That Remains, p. 71)

And – I can’t help myself – here’s a passage from Jacob Taubes: “I contend that this concept of nihilism, as developed here by Benjamin, is the guiding thread also of the hos me in Corinthians and Romans. The world decays, the morphe of this world has passed. Here, the relationship to the world is, as the young Benjamin understands it, world politics as nihilism. And that is something that Nietzsche understood, that behind all this there is a profound nihilism at work, that it is at work as world politics, toward the destruction of the Roman Empire. This is why you can’t make Lutheran deals with Romans 13, unless you give up the entire frame.” (Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, p. 72.)

Centre for Public Christianity

The new Centre for Public Christianity is now up and running. It’s an Australian institute which describes itself as “a research and media organisation promoting the public understanding of the Christian faith.” The website has lots of videos and articles, including a few pieces written by me (adapted from F&T posts):

Monstrous Grace in the Songs of Tom Waits
Work and Play in a Culture of Boredom
Spong’s Jesus: Not Radical Enough

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Easter sermon: no payback!

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Two numbers forever etched in our memories of infamy: 9/11. Reflecting back on the event a year later, one commentator (Stanley Hauerwas) wrote: It was “an apocalyptic moment Christians in America cannot ignore. Surely something like how we felt as we survived the days after September 11, 2001, is how the followers of Jesus felt after the crucifixion”: disbelief, confusion, grief, anger – and fear. We were all afraid of further acts of terror. The disciples too were afraid of further acts of terror – the state terror – of imperial Rome. What happened next?

For the followers of Jesus, there were two days of total eclipse, and then – resurrection! – an even more apocalyptic moment than the crucifixion: in Jewish thought resurrection belonged to the scenario of the end-times, when God would bring the old world of suffering and death to a dramatic conclusion and begin a new world of justice and joy. Surely a cause for celebration, you might think. But – observe – the immediate reaction of the disciples to the presence of the risen Christ is not joy – but, again, fear. A different kind of fear, the commentators tell us, than frightened fear, rather “awe” in the presence of the holy. But I wonder if there isn’t a bit of special pleading here. I wonder if there wasn’t that same fear-as-fright about their reaction, except now with a different object: not Caiaphas and Pilate but Jesus himself. For had not the cowardly disciples denied, betrayed, abandoned their leader to his fate? In other words, hadn’t they behaved in such a way as to invite and expect some sort of payback? Indeed, isn’t it that the most astonishing thing of all about the resurrection of Jesus: there was no payback!

Think of 9/11 again. On the third day, as it were, America rises from the dead, from the ashes of Ground Zero. What is the immediate reaction of the nation, embodied in the melodramatic speeches, soon to become military policy, of George Bush? What else but payback? First the easy pickings of Afghanistan, then the full-scale invasion of Iraq; and now here we are, five years later, with George Bush unbowed and unrepentant, in defiance of reason and evidence still speaking the empty rhetoric of freedom and democracy, still claiming that he did the right thing, and, notwithstanding the current anarchy and slaughter, eyes wide shut in denial, still declaring that he’d do it again: bring the superior firepower of the US, its swift and righteous sword, to bear on the evil and cowardly terrorists.

But after Easter, what does the crucified and risen Jesus do? Does he respond to his execution by marshalling that legion of angels he refused to deploy on Golgotha, smashing his way into the imperial palace with shock and awe, overwhelming the hopelessly outgunned royal guard, and exacting a righteous and terrible revenge on Pilate, who, of course, had form as a ruthless tyrant long before his showdown with the rebel from Galilee? Does he storm the Temple in a way that makes the disruptive demonstration the Sunday before look like the piece of street theatre that, in fact, it was, then advance beyond the court of Gentiles and invade the court of priests, seize the hapless Caiaphas and – how ironically apt – cast him from the spire he had once stood atop with the devil himself? Does he round up those reprehensible disciples, perhaps hood and humiliate them, or take them down to the pool of Bethesda for a bit of waterboarding, which, after all, isn’t really torture, or, at the very least, give them a tongue-lashing they’ll never forget and send them away in guilt and despair? None of the above. No violence, no vengeance – no payback!

So what does the crucified and risen Jesus do? He ignores Pilate and Caiaphas, his judges and executioners, completely. And when he meets his followers – who would believe it! – he says things like, “Do not be afraid,” and “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds to reassure them, and to demonstrate that even in his regnant glory his decorations will always be scars. And he commissions them to carry on his ministry – how? As avenging furies, agents of retribution? (“I’ll be back, through you, my shock troops, and this time it’s personal.”) No, no payback! Indeed the mission impossible he gives them is a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But why should this surprise us? Hadn’t the crucified One already disarmed his disciples in the garden, and forgiven his killers on Calvary? Will the risen One now change his mind? In John’s gospel Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples as he gives them the gift of peace (John 20:21-22). This is John’s version of Luke’s Pentecost. But the peace of Christ is not for them alone. The man for others (Bonhoeffer) commissions a church for others. The peace they receive they must share, declare, and effect. And this peace takes the form of – forgiveness! Jesus says: “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23). And though the construction looks like a conditional, as if forgiveness were discretionary – as if the disciples might grant forgiveness to this one but withhold it from that one – the key to Jesus’ command is its gracious sweep and urgency. Forgiveness itself is God’s judgement on sin, and forgiveness itself is the condition that makes justice possible. Wrath – whatever that might mean – must be left to the Father. This is John’s version of Matthew’s Great Commission.

Am I suggesting that forgiveness become the central plank of the West’s ethical foreign policy against terrorism? A counter-question: why the absolute astonishment, indeed repugnance, with which Christian themselves react to such a suggestion? Does it not, in fact, demonstrate – in the sense of “what difference does it make to our discipleship?” – that we do not live the truth that Jesus is the risen Lord, that we ignore the events of Holy and Easter week, as well as his life and teaching, that we honour the seventh beatitude more in the breach than the observance; rather we live as if Caesar (in whatever guise) were Lord, as if the events recorded in our tabloids rather than the stories of Jesus in the Bible define the “real” world, as if violence rather than peace were the origin, goal, and very grain of the universe? If being Christian trumped being American, British, or whatever, and if the church itself practiced a politics of peace, then at least we would have something to say to government that wasn’t the mere echo of its own loud voice.

It is a commonplace to say that the autumn of 2001 changed everything. In fact, 9/11 and its six-year wake has changed nothing. No, it was a spring weekend in the year 33, when there was a most rude interruption to the way the world does its business – a gruesome gibbet, an empty tomb, an unarmed man passing through barricades, waging peace – that is what changed everything. Though you wouldn’t know it. And why on earth should anyone, governments included, believe it when even the church doesn’t?

The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas was once asked, in his dissent from the war on terrorism: “Well, what alternative foreign policy do you have to bombing Afghanistan [and invading Iraq]?” Hauerwas replied: “My only response is [that] I do not have a foreign policy. I have something better – a church constituted by people who would rather die than kill.” People who believe in a saviour who would rather die than kill, who did die rather than kill, and who lives and rules the world – no payback! – with truth and grace, because God is non-violent, and in him there is no violence at all.

Easter: the one true day

“Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.”

—George Herbert, “Easter” (1633)

Friday, 21 March 2008

Good Friday

“Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.”

—George Herbert, “The Agonie” (1633).

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Maundy Thursday hymn: Jesus kneels down, Peter reels round

A hymn by Kim Fabricius (see also Kim’s sermon for Maundy Thursday)

(Tune: Infant holy)

        Jesus kneels down,
        Peter reels round
as he’s told to take a seat.
        Jesus hushes,
        Peter blushes
at the Lord who washes feet.
        Role reversal,
        a unique play,
        dress rehearsal
        for the Friday:
Praise the God of bowl and cross!
Praise the God of bowl and cross!

        Back at table,
        still unstable,
friends of Jesus reconstrue.
        Reprimanded,
        now commanded,
“Do what I have done for you!”
        Love’s portrayal
        while they’re eating;
        Christ’s betrayal –
        self-defeating:
Reigns the God of bowl and cross!
Reigns the God of bowl and cross!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Not peace but the sword: reflections on peace, Hauerwas and the trivial

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

Peace is one of the most deceptive terms in public discourse. Consequently, it is not at all clear to me that people know what they are referring to when they talk about peace. Take the current political climate: peace most commonly refers to not having been part of the invasion of Iraq in the first place, or now getting the hell out of Iraq and thus bringing an end to our part in this bloody war. When it comes to Iraq itself, the West’s dreams of peace are for an end to sectarian violence and the emergence of some kind of nascent democratic society. And yet even at this point things are not what they seem.

Notice, for instance, that the recommendations coming out of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) have increasingly stressed the importance of the creation of low-wage employment for Iraqi youths (who comprise over sixty percent of the population). The rationale is: get them spending all their time working and saving for clothes, leisure activities or a new iPod and they won’t have either the energy or the motivation to kill other Iraqis. What I find remarkable about this is not just that the grand American rhetoric of ‘bringing freedom to Iraq’ is reduced to the more banal image of adolescent Iraqis flipping falafels at some street vendor in Baghdad. It is the way that this image reflects back to Western democratic societies its fantasies of what peaceful existence looks like. Let me explain what I mean.

The fundamental delusion that rationalised America’s invasion of Iraq was the belief that, once set free from the grasp of a maniacal tyrant, Iraqis would spontaneously adopt recognisably democratic forms of social life. In other words, they believed that beneath the skin we are all American, and that the longing for freedom, peace and the advantages of the free market run deep in the human soul. The reality of the situation, however, was that deposing Saddam Hussein opened the gates of hell. As George Packer wrote in The Assassins’ Gate, ‘Iraq without the lid of totalitarianism clamped down has become a place of roiling and contending ethnic claims’.

This state of affairs should have come as no surprise, for the chaos to which the nation reverted post-Saddam was anticipated in King Faisal’s chilling description of his own people in 1933: they are, he said, ‘unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever’. Far from releasing Iraqis from the terror of the Ba’athist régime so that some repressed longing for peace could bloom, the American invasion exposed the inherent violence and sheer bloodlust that had been held in check for four decades.

My point here is not to try to exaggerate the violent nature of the Iraqi people, but rather to call into question the widespread belief that peaceableness is a quality that underlies the human condition, which is allowed to surface whenever the external determinants of tyranny or extremism are removed. Is it not rather that human beings partake in a violence so profound that it dwarfs even the most aggressive mammalian behaviour? And are humans not remarkable for their natural incapacity to organize themselves peacefully? These were the observations that troubled Thomas Hobbes, whose immense political theology stemmed from the conviction ‘that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.’ War, for Hobbes, is not an exceptional state of mass violence that interrupts a more fundamental tranquillity. War is the human condition itself.

(I have to admit that I like Stephen King’s variation on this same theme. In one of his more gruesome novels, Cell, there is a kind of electromagnetic ‘Pulse’ that is transmitted through mobile phones, which seemingly produces uncontrollable aggression in its recipients. As the book progresses, though, it is revealed that the Pulse didn’t introduce or generate this bloodthirsty animalism; it simply wiped away the veneer of human civility, exposing – to use Carl Jung’s phrase – our more fundamental ‘blood-consciousness’. Here’s how one character explains it to his companions: ‘At bottom, you see, we are not Homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder. What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle. And that is what the Pulse exposed five days ago.’)

What then of the so-called ‘peace’ enjoyed and promoted by democratic societies? Isn’t it apparent from the Pax Americana that now holds sway – whether at home or abroad – that such peace has become little more than an obsession with the trivial, a benevolent boredom, or worst of all, the inalienable right to excess? It acts, in other words, like a palliative, a form of cultural sedation aimed at distracting us from our violent predisposition, all the while satisfying our bloodlust through vicarious means (television, movies, sport, etc.).

I think it is important at this point to register the extent of my disagreement with Stanley Hauerwas, someone I otherwise greatly respect, on just this question of the substance and character of peace. For all his notorious anti-American rhetoric, it seems to me that on this very point he remains an unreconstructed ‘good ol’ boy’, and his ethical program is perfectly at home within the greater Pax Americana.

I have already suggested that the conception of peace as a deeper (ontological) reality than violence – a concept that is fundamental for Hauerwas, John Milbank and David Bentley Hart – is theologically problematic and ethically impotent. But it is the way that Hauerwas characterises a life narrated by nonviolence as one of profound boredom, marked by the willingness to enjoy the trivial (he often likens the life committed to nonviolence to watching baseball) that I find deeply problematic. For he seems thereby to have accepted in advance the price to be paid for becoming a beneficiary of this idolatrous peace: that we abandon any kind of moral seriousness, renounce every ‘higher’ cause – such a subordination of one’s life to the state, party or cause, Hauerwas says, ‘is the character of totalitarian regimes’.

At this point, isn’t Hauerwas pandering directly to the American obsession with leisure? And further, is this depiction of the ethical life as one which ‘takes time for the trivial’ not an uncanny reiteration of George W. Bush’s urging of people to fight terrorism by continuing to indulge in the excesses of the American way of life? Hauerwas thus unwittingly confirms the accuracy of Slavoj Žižek’s recent observation, that ‘the split between the First and Third World runs increasingly along the lines of an opposition between leading a long, satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent cause. We in the West are immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything.’

Perhaps now, more than ever, it is important to be reminded of Jesus’ words, which war against this pseudo-peace – whether the bloody peace-through-submission of the Pax Romana, or the indolent peace-through-sedation of our current Pax Americana: ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ The intense conflict introduced by Jesus and radicalised in his resurrection, cuts through every organic or ethnic tie (family, nation, gender), leaving those who follow him alone and unprotected in a world determined by self-interest. The apostle Paul goes even further, locating this conflict at the level of the Dawkinsian ‘selfish genes’ themselves – his term for which is ‘flesh’. If there is any peace recognized by Christianity, it is this experience of being profoundly disconnected within a world that knows only violence.

But today, the Church has traded peace for leisure, whoring after the trinkets of our pleasure economy and abandoning its calling to risk everything for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Our Easter declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a manifesto for the only peace that really counts. Will we have ears to hear?

Why Bible-believing Methodists shouldn't eat black pudding

Our friends at Connexions are offering a free e-book on biblical interpretation, with the catchy title Why Bible-Believing Methodists Shouldn’t Eat Black Pudding.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Around the traps

  • Rowan Williams talks about writing: among other things, he explains why he has never written any large books on Christian doctrine, and he also talks about his forthcoming volume of poems (which I’m eagerly awaiting!).
  • Cynthia announces a blog conference on Bulgakov, and David announces one on Balthasar.
  • Halden asks us to nominate our favourite patristic and modern Catholic theologians (mine are Augustine and Schillebeeckx – unless Augustine can also count as a modern Catholic, in which case I’ll nominate Augustine and Augustine).
  • Danny points to an interesting theological review of Badiou.
  • Kent briefly reviews five recent books on Pannenberg (my two cents: there’s still no better book on Pannenberg than Chris Mostert).
  • And Adam reviews Chris Huebner’s book of Yoderian explorations – I’m reading this at the moment, and it’s terrific; I like my pacifism with teeth.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Palm Sunday sermon: lose your faith!

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

There is a lot of twaddle and guff talked during Holy Week. A few years ago I heard a Good Friday sermon – some of you heard it too – in which it was suggested that Jesus, being a carpenter, in order to distract his attention and ease his pain on the cross, may well have admired the quality of its wood. As if our Lord was thinking, “Nice bit of teak this. It’d make a great desk for the study.” It was positively Pythonesque.

No guff and twaddle today. Today I’m going to try to speak shocking, scandalous, scalding truth, say outrageous, even sacrilegious things. You will probably be too polite to heckle or jeer me, but if you walk out on me I shall consider it the highest compliment. I thought of having the elders hand out eggs for to you to throw at me, but pitied the poor cleaners. But eggs are nothing compared to the darts I’m going to fire at you. It’s time to attack your faith, wound it, leave it bleeding, dying, dead – just like the guy on the cross.

Let’s start with some cherished beliefs. For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus suffering more horribly than anyone else. But how could we possibly know that? Crucifixion? Yes, a terrible, terrible form of torture and execution. But Jesus’ was only one among thousands and thousands of crucifixions carried out under the so-called Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – when gibbets would stretch for miles down the Apian Way. And the death of Jesus – mercifully swift it was, he expired by mid-afternoon, most usually languished for days. Besides, after the Inquisition, after Auschwitz and the Gulags, after the killing fields in southeast Asia, the tribal slaughter in Rwanda, the mass graves in the Balkans, how can anyone possibly presume to compare national atrocities and personal tragedies, let alone grade them according to some calculus of pain?

For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus facing his death more courageously than anyone else. But clearly this is special pleading. And didn’t the first Christians know it – which is why they were hesitant about sensationalising the death of Jesus in terms of martyrdom. As pagans were quick to point out, rather smugly, Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane, and crying out in agony on Calvary, compares rather unfavourably with the great philosopher Socrates on death row, calmly drinking the hemlock as he reminds a friend – his last words – to remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of heath. For Socrates death was the moment of release, for Jesus a time of despair.

And for example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus dying at the hands of evil men, particularly “the Jews”. What self-serving propaganda! And what a perverse fillip to the church’s long and shameful history of anti-semitism. No, it was not the bestial but the best that killed Jesus. The state in all its glory and religion at its most awesome killed Jesus: not the mob but the upholders of public order, not the wicked but the standard-bearers of morality. Yes, the trial was conducted with unseemly haste and the evidence was selectively marshalled, but the defendant incriminated himself, confessed even, so (if you like) there were no grounds for appeal. For Jesus did undermine a religious system based on law and cult, and Jesus did threaten a political regime based on violence and retribution. Jesus acted with freedom and broke the rules, embracing the dirty, the deviant, and the dangerous. And Jesus prophetically unmasked the mighty pretensions of the local procurator and publicly subverted Caesar’s claim to lordship. Jesus really did force the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate and leave them no choice but to get rid of him. Better that one man die than that the entire social order be at risk – the tried and trusted scapegoat principle. No doubt about it, this peasant troublemaker from up north profoundly threatened the status quo. He had to go.

So: for one Holy Week forget about the suffering of Jesus, the courage of Jesus, the wickedness of it all. Forget even about the dying of Jesus: it is not to the crucifix, or even to the deposition, that I would direct you – no! Rather look at the man – dead – gaze upon the corpse of Christ, fix your eyes on his cold and rigid body, laid out on a slab, already showing signs of decomposition. I am thinking of Hans Holbein’s painting “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. The Russian author Dostoevsky saw the painting, in a museum in Basel, stopping on his way to Geneva, and forever after it haunted him like a nightmare. He describes it in his great novel The Idiot. The character Prince Myshkin says: “Why some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!”

This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son.

No one puts it more starkly – or more honestly and truthfully – than Bonhoeffer. We must recognize, he wrote from prison, “that we have to learn to live in the world ‘as if God were not here’. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… God would have us know that we must live as men and women who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us… Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” – and then down from the cross and into the grave. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” God a Super-Power? That god is a demon, the Devil. If that god is your Lord, this week is a call for “regime change” (Walter Brueggemann).

So, yes, lose your faith! For as with life, so with faith: only those who lose it will find it. Or rather may find it. Faith is a risk, and discipleship demands that we learn to live with insecurity and uncertainty, setting out on a journey without a map, with companions who are as lost as we are, following a leader who is always way ahead of us, beckoning mysteriously, “Follow me!”, and then vanishing just as we arrive. God is mystery, ineffable mystery, naming a reality that we know, but the more we know, the more we are forced to un-know and rethink everything we thought we knew.

But hang on, Kim, frankly you’ve lost us. We don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, it sounds crazy, foolish. You’ve accomplished the remarkable achievement of making someone like Rowan Williams sound lucid, simple, straightforward. And you’re supposed to be a preacher, and isn’t the whole point of the sermon to make it easier to understand God, to increase our faith, so that we can go back to the world feeling edified, uplifted, and ready to share the Good News? Not today it’s not. Today I can’t help you. This week no one can help you. Come Friday, not even God – especially not God – can help you. And come Saturday, God himself is lying in a tomb. Emptiness. Zero. Nothing. But might it be a pregnant emptiness, a significant zero, a silent nothing that yet says everything? (after Alan E. Lewis). We shall have to wait till Easter. Only then shall we learn that this Week is Holy, and its Friday Good. Only then may we just find a new faith rising from the old faith that I pray you will lose today.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Happy at last

If posting here has been a bit irregular and/or boring in recent weeks, it’s because I’ve been spending every spare moment working on my new home study (formerly the garage). It’s now finished at last, so I’m exhausted but happy...

Friday, 14 March 2008

Slow down

“The singular and irreducible role of philosophy is to establish a fixed point within discourse, a point of interruption, a point of discontinuity, an unconditional point. Our world is marked by its speed: the speed of historical change; the speed of technical change; the speed of communications; of transmissions; and even the speed with which human beings establish connections with one another.... Philosophy must propose a retardation process. It must construct a time for thought, which, in the face of the injunction to speed, will constitute a time of its own. I consider this a singularity of philosophy; that its thinking is leisurely, because today revolt requires leisureliness and not speed. This thinking, slow and consequently rebellious, is alone capable of establishing the fixed point...”

—Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 38.

The necessity of theology

“Theology is necessary in order to make preaching as hard for the preacher as it has to be.”

—Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith (London: SCM, 1963), p. 424.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Why I am (finally) going to read Herbert McCabe

I’ve been meaning to read a bit of Herbert McCabe ever since Kim’s posts – but somehow I’ve just never gotten around to it. But when I read Halden’s new post, McCabe was suddenly pushed straight to the top of my must-read list. Here are some of the passages Halden quotes from McCabe’s book God Matters:

“The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history, or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story…. The historical mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal mission of the Son from the Father; the historical outpouring of the Spirit in virtue of the passion, death, and ascension of Jesus is nothing but the eternal outpouring of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. Watching, so to say, the story of Jesus, we are watching the processions of the Trinity.”

“There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth…. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus.”

Which is exactly what Barthian thinkers like Jüngel, Jenson and McCormack have been telling us as well. The “pre-existence” of the Son is always and only the pre-existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth. The trinitarian relations exist not as a hidden “depth” lurking behind the history of Jesus, but precisely as the surface on which this history is enacted.

Monday, 10 March 2008

St Paul and philosophy in Vancouver

The most exciting and most événementiel theological conference of the year – “Saint Paul’s Journeys into Philosophy,” 4-6 June 2008 – now has its website up and running, and it’s open for registrations (early bird until 15 April). Here’s a note from the organiser, Doug Harink:

Join us for a conference which explores the critical appropriations of Saint Paul by recent and contemporary Continental philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, and others. An international group of philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars and literary theorists will present papers on a wide range of themes arising from this recent philosophical appropriation of Saint Paul. Plenary speakers include Stephen Fowl, Paul Griffiths, Travis Kroeker and J. Louis Martyn. There will also be presentations by Creston Davis, Neil Elliott, Paul Gooch, Douglas Harink, Chris Huebner, Mark Reasoner, Jeffrey Robbins, Gordon Zerbe, Jens Zimmerman and others. To register, or to get travel and accommodation information, visit the website or email Doug Harink.

So don’t be an animal, be a subject – be there for the event!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Eucharistic tears

At my local parish, young children are allowed to receive the bread at Communion. But this morning our rector was away, and the visiting priest followed the usual Anglican procedure of giving the children a blessing instead of bread. I didn’t really notice this until my family had returned to our pew – when we had sat down, my three-year-old daughter burst into tears and exclaimed loudly: “But where’s my body of Christ?”

Friday, 7 March 2008

Prozac in a culture of consumption

by Kim Fabricius

The use of antidepressants needs to be placed in the larger context of postmodern cultural assumptions about what constitutes the human condition. In a society where health and happiness are now taken to be inalienable rights, many experiences previously taken to be normal and inevitable, if painful, parts of life – for example, stress, shame, guilt, grief, let alone melancholy or angst – have been pathologised and medicalised. Treatment becomes de rigueur, and not just through the prescription of pills but also through referrals to therapy and counselling (with their own hidden premises about what the ancients called the good life).

The irony is that in a culture of consumption that values autonomy and choice above all things, these interventions represent profoundly disempowering developments and collude not only in self-alienation but also in social fragmentation. Moreover the privileging of the emotions over the intellect, the displacement of hard thinking by the simplistic soundbite, and our obsession with speed to the occlusion of patience, all conspire to guarantee that no critique will be taken seriously even if it is heard – particularly if it is spoken by a philosopher, let alone (heaven forbid!) by a theologian.

O tempora! O mores! Or, in the vernacular, what goes around comes around.

Maggi Dawn among the archbishops

Maggi has posted the first part of her recent interview with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. In this installment, they talk about blogging. Stay tuned to Maggi for more in the days ahead.

Simone Weil: pensées

Kim has a nice post on Simone Weil over at Connexions. He includes this quote from Weil: “Denial of St Peter. To say to Christ: ‘I will never deny you’ was to deny him already, for it was to suppose the source of faithfulness to be in himself and not in grace…. Peter did not deny Christ when he broke his promise, but when he made it.”

Sighs, signs and significance

If you’re in the neighbourhood of Duke Divinity School next week, be sure to get along to the joint meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society and the Society for Pentecostal Studies: Sighs, Signs, and Significance: Pentecostal and Wesleyan Explorations of Science and Creation, 13-15 March 2008. There’ll be plenary papers by Jürgen Moltmann, Harold Koenig, James K. A. Smith and Randy Maddox. And there are hundreds of other papers, with appearances from folk like Stanley Hauerwas, D. Stephen Long, William Abraham, Amos Yong, Joel Green, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

On the realness of money

“For me, money has displaced the pivotal concepts of twentieth-century European philosophy, such as being, time, difference, repetition, subjectivity, signifier, lack, void and universality, as that which most demands thinking.”
—Philip Goodchild, The Theology of Money (Canterbury Press, 2007), p. 26.

“There is but a single ontological problem: ‘What is money?’”
—Philip Goodchild, “Capital and Kingdom: An Eschatological Ontology,” in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, ed. Davies, Milbank and Žižek (Duke UP, 2005), p. 130.

Theology and quantum physics

John Polkinghorne’s latest book looks promising: Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (Yale UP, 2008).

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief also includes an article which I co-wrote with the physicist Ross McKenzie: “Dialectical Critical Realism in Science and Theology: Quantum Physics and Karl Barth,” Science and Christian Belief 20:1 (2008), 49-66. Here’s an excerpt:

“Quantum physics gives an example of a reality which is concrete and describable but also enigmatic, and which must be interpreted on its own terms. The paradoxes and counter-intuitive nature of quantum theory do not lead physicists to abandon realism; rather the dialectical nature of our knowledge compels physicists to adopt a more critical realism. So too, in theology, the enigmatic character of the object of study should lead not to epistemological relativism but to a recognition of the dialectical and critical character of all theoretical formulations.”

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Making it difficult

“The loyal and uncritical repetition of formulae is seen to be inadequate as a means of securing continuity at anything more than a formal level; Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities…. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.”

—Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2d ed.; London: SCM, 2001), p. 236.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

An interview

Over at the Biblioblogs site, Jim West has interviewed me as “blogger of the month” – you can read it here. We talk about theology, childhood, blogging, Rowan Williams, why my hair was once purple, and much more.

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