Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The art of citation

Recently I was talking with some friends about the problem of citation in contemporary theological writing. We bemoaned the disturbing rise of block-quotes in much current writing: the tendency merely to cite large chunks of (presumably transparent and authoritative) text, instead of trying always to speak in one’s own voice, while reserving the apposite citation for particular strategic purposes.

Anyway, Leland de la Durantaye’s excellent new book on Agamben includes a discussion of Agamben’s notion of “the art of citing without quotation marks” – an idea derived from Walter Benjamin. Durantaye writes (pp. 145-46):

“Benjamin had a singular relation to citation. He once wrote that the ‘craft of the critic’ required a ‘theory of critical citation’…. In his One-Way Street, he informed his readers that ‘citations in my work are like armed thieves who emerge suddenly and rob leisurely strollers of their convictions.’ He thus uses citations strategically; they are part of the guerilla warfare he wages against the preconceived notions of his reader…. To cite without quotation marks is to offer the idea without the imprimatur of an author or authority. This requires of the idea that it stand or fall on its own merits and not find automatic support from its lineage. Elsewhere in The Arcades Project, Benjamin compares citational footnotes to bills slipped under the garters of women for hire. His sensitivity to the less reputable sides of citation was particularly keen.”

Sunday, 28 June 2009

On stealing books

When I was a boy, I had an insatiable appetite for fantasy fiction: I had been enraptured by The Lord of the Rings when I was ten years old, and it seemed everything else I read was an attempt to recover the thrilling magic and mystery of that experience. As a teenager, I recall a couple of occasions in which I stole books. Walking calmly into the local bookstore; slipping some new novel into my school bag; heart pounding in my ears as I strolled blithely out of the store again; clutching my prize afterwards, giddy with guilt and anticipation.

There is a long and colourful history of book-stealing in the West. Alberto Manguel’s delightful History of Reading (Harper 1996) includes a chapter on “Stealing Books”. He relates the argument of one seventeenth-century authority, that “stealing books is not a crime unless the books are sold” (p. 241); and he recounts the tale of Europe’s most notorious book thief, a 19th-century Tuscan aristocrat who had himself appointed overseer of all the public libraries in France. He went about his business with great industry and enthusiasm, “dressed in a huge cloak under which he concealed his treasures” (p. 241).

Manguel observes that bibliokleptomania can be traced right back to the beginning of libraries in Western Europe, and indeed even further back, since the earliest Roman libraries consisted mainly of volumes that had been plundered from the Greeks. “Book thieves plagued the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; in 1752 Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed a bull in which book thieves were punished with excommunication” (p. 243). The Pope’s bull came too late for John Milton: his life had been wholly devoted to books, but as an ageing blind man he complained darkly that his daughters were secretly selling off items from his library for their own profit – an unbearable cruelty that added insult to injury, summing up for Milton everything that was wrong with this fallen world. The practice appears in a more positive light, however, in Markus Zusak’s recent novel, The Book Thief (Knopf 2006), an exquisite story set in Germany during the Second World War – and perhaps the most charming and poignant celebration ever penned on the art of book-stealing.

Admittedly, my own adolescent experiments in book theft were prompted not by a recognition of these great traditions, much less by poverty or need. There was something about fantasy novels (so it seemed) that simply demanded a courageous act of theft. These were stories of knights and castles and magic and fabulous beasts: a routine commercial exchange seemed altogether too tame a transaction for such lofty themes. The theft enabled me to participate more fully in the heroic world of these books: I didn’t merely want to own the books, I wanted to conquer and possess them. As another 19th-century writer, Charles Lamb, aptly stated: “A book reads the better which is our own.”

Of course, the very mention of book theft strikes fear into the heart of all librarians and all those whose lives are ordered around the collection of books. Who among us has not experienced the familiar scene: you loan someone a book; you ask them to return it in due course; the book is never seen again. It is silently absorbed into the fabric of another person’s world.

I was once visiting a medievalist friend who is a voracious book collector, and he offered to loan me a book. When he handed it to me, I noticed a faded note slipped inside the front cover, with the words: “I hope you enjoy the book. Please return when you’re finished.” My friend saw the note, and remarked: “I’ll leave the note in the cover, since it was like that when the book was loaned to me.”

If you’ve been a victim of this sort of permanent book-lending, then you might want to adopt a more vigorous deterrent strategy in future. The library of the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona (as recorded in Manguel, p. 244) was inscribed with the following cautionary words:

“For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy…. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

Friday, 26 June 2009

Theology and the self in cyberspace

At next week’s AACC conference in Brisbane, I’ll be giving a dinner talk entitled “Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse”. If anyone knows of some good research in this area, I’d be glad for some extra reading tips before I start writing the paper. Here’s the abstract I submitted:

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben once remarked: “There are no authors today who could console themselves by thinking that their work will be read in a century (by what kind of human beings?)...” The emergence of new web technologies, coupled with the formation of new online communities, raises sharply this question of “what kind of human beings” might exist a century from now. This paper analyses the contemporary Web 2.0 environment (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online gaming, etc), and offers a reflection on the way these web technologies are forming our interior human landscapes. Focusing especially on the place of blogging in contemporary theology, the paper argues that theological discourse is changing and adapting under the impact of new technologies and new forms of human interaction – just as, in another period, theological discourse changed under the impact of the printing press and the mass production of books. The paper will suggest some possible answers to the questions: what kind of self is formed by blogging? And what kind of theology?

Hunched over a typewriter, I guess you call that painting in a cave

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Ray S. Anderson (1925-2009)

by Christian D. Kettler, Friends University

Ray S. Anderson passed away on Father’s
Day, June 21, 2009. For many years Professor of Theology and Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, Anderson was a theologian who never ceased to be a pastor. Whether you are a clergy person or a lay person, whatever your denomination or Christian heritage may be, Ray Anderson has many exciting, and sometimes provocative, things to say. I speak from experience as a student of Anderson’s, beginning at Fuller Seminary, but extending along many years. While reading almost any of his many books, I am always struck by both a depth of insight and an almost joyful playfulness for the ministry of theology. Theology is ministry itself, a ministry of meditating upon the gospel of the unconditional grace of God in Jesus Christ, but ministry itself is also theology; true ministry, the ministry of God, always precedes and governs theology.

For over thirty years, Ray Anderson has been quietly writing a body of work that is remarkable in its ability to awaken both theology and the church to a theology that actually intersects with the ministry of the church and a view of ministry that dwells in a deep place of reflection. I regret is that I will be unable to replicate the spark of playfulness and intellectual restlessness that characterizes Anderson’s writings, lectures, and sermons. Donald Mackinnon, the noted Cambridge theologian who has received new interest in recent years, spoke of this “nervous, restless quality” even in Anderson’s doctoral dissertation (later published as Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God).

Anderson’s lectures were for many years a refuge of grace for weary students who were bounced back and forth in seminary classes, from studying academic, critical disciplines in one to learning pastoral and ministry skills in another, with little integration of the two. Most of all, in the midst of personal crises, the students found in Anderson’s lectures (and pastoral counsel) grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16). Unconditional grace is not just a doctrine for Anderson, but the way that he responds to people, even in their weaker moments. For what Anderson means by a theology of ministry is not simply a thin veneer of Bible verses justifying the typical, prosaic ministry program of a congregation. Rather, his theology of ministry is truly incarnational, the Word penetrating deeply into our flesh (Jn 1:14), the flesh of the whole person, involving spiritual, emotional, and physical turmoils. That is where Jesus Christ meets us, and continues to meet us, not in a ministry of our own creation, but in participating in his continuing ministry, God’s ministry.

In recent years Anderson has found more dialogue with Christian psychologists than theologians (perhaps attesting to a fear among theologians of their own humanity?). This has born fruit in a remarkable issue of Edification: Journal of the Society for Christian Psychology, in which Anderson’s article “Toward a Holistic Psychology: Putting All the Pieces in their Proper Place” was followed by several responses by psychologists, philosophers and theologians. This kind of critical interaction, certainly not uncritical, demonstrates the stimulation that Anderson’s thought can provides for all three groups of scholars and at the same time benefits all of those involved in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

For all of Anderson’s commitment to community there is a freedom in his theology to be a maverick, to be oneself and go against the grain. J. G. Hamann and Dag Hammarskjöld are two iconoclasts he likes to quote. Anderson presents an interesting portrait of the maverick theologian in the midst of community; not an easier venture, as his former colleagues and students will attest!

Good theology is not just a display of erudition, as Thomas Torrance told me once. Ray Anderson was not a historical theologian, biblical scholar, or philosopher in the guise of a theologian. Unapologetically, he was a “restless” theologian in service to the church of Jesus Christ. Good theology is being faithful to Jesus Christ and demonstrating that faithfulness with the kind of “nervous, restless quality” of mind that Donald Mackinnon spoke of Anderson’s thought. But Anderson is doubling challenging in that he refuses to allow for a theology that does not partake, like the incarnation, of actual human flesh, like the incarnation; the human flesh of human dilemmas, perplexities, and ambiguity. I remember well Ray Anderson telling a class that one must always be open to a “theology of ambiguity.” How difficult was it for us conservative evangelical students to hear that! But we came to realize that the ambiguity rightly exists in our limited and fallen understandings, not in God.

Anderson’s influences were many and profound, including Edward Carnell, Kierkegaard, the philosopher John Macmurray, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Torrance, James Torrance, and the interdisciplinary work of Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. Ray Anderson was probably the first English-speaking theologian (in his dissertation published in 1975) to recognize the profound theological anthropology and ecclesiology in the work of the Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas. Anderson provides an interesting case study of American evangelicalism at mid-twentieth century when some were trying to provide an intellectual alternative not only to fundamentalism but to the rationalistic theology that was presented by such early Fuller Seminary professors like Carl F. H. Henry. Anderson’s critique of Henry is very telling and insightful. Anderson’s place, and often a controversial place, in the modern history of Fuller Seminary modern American evangelicalism, is very much worthwhile for further study, when he and Geoffrey Bromiley sought to present Karl Barth’s theology to a Fuller evangelicalism often more interested promoting a Christian “worldview” or church growth techniques than to learn from Barth a radical evangelical theology and to build upon it.

When one reads Anderson one will be struck with the sheer humanity of his theology. The incarnation is not just an orthodox or abstract doctrine for him. I have two “Rays” that have been very influential on my life and thought: Ray Anderson and the fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. His writings have a profound humanity yet always with a sense of wonder and respect for the divine. In a way, as Ray Bradbury has brought a sense of God in the humanity of fantasy and science fiction writing, Ray Anderson has brought a sense of humanity into God in the field of theology. Anderson’s writings have that same respect for humanity that Bradbury’s do for the divine.

Born on a South Dakota farm, Ray Anderson comes from the soil of the very human and practical endeavor of the farmer and transplants that humanity into the struggles of American evangelicalism as a pastor and student and teacher at Fuller Theological Seminary. While a young farmer himself, Anderson listened to one of the most successful of the early radio evangelists, Charles E. Fuller, and his radio program, “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” From then, Anderson and his family travelled to Pasadena, California to enroll in Fuller’s relatively new theological seminary. The young Anderson found a form of the traditional American revivalistic tradition that had become preoccupied with correcting its intellectual and cultural deficiencies, now calling itself, “evangelicalism.” These sons (at that time almost exclusively male) of evangelists sought to avoid the parochialism and obscurantism of their fundamentalist forebears while holding to fast to what they perceived to be the eternal faith. The influence of Edward J. Carnell, a restless, iconoclastic, and troubled evangelical mind and professor at Fuller Seminary, was a great stimulation to the young farmer turned seminary student to move beyond simply regurgitating the new “evangelicalism.”

Planting a new Evangelical Free Church congregation in Covina, California exposed Anderson to the very real experience of a young pastor. “Restless” is the word that seems to have continued to characterize Ray Anderson in his early days in pastoral ministry. During this time of living with the raw realities of a congregation and the stereotypical expectations of a “reverend,” Anderson found himself jotting down short “musings” as he would later call them, a theological notebook of the daring of faith that sought to think beyond the stereotypes of ministry and theology. Published much later as Soulprints (1996), this theology in the midst of ministry will be hashed out in the context of the increasingly alienated culture of the 1960s. The result was a ministry that sought consciously to be incarnational, less concerned with success than with human beings trapped in an alienating world.

Mid-life took Anderson to Scotland for a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Edinburgh under the noted theologian Thomas F. Torrance. Torrance, a student of Karl Barth’s, provided for Anderson a theology that would put words to what he had become to experience in Covina, an incarnational ministry that drove one to ask new questions of God. The result was his doctoral dissertation, Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God, published in 1975. Borrowing deeply from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Macmurray, Anderson sought to orientate the doctrine of God in an increasingly skeptical age to a view of transcendence that is not “other-worldly,” but based on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. A strikingly original ecclesiology proceeded from this, Anderson’s first major theological work.

After a short time teaching at Westmont College in California, Ray Anderson joined the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976. As theological mentor for Fuller Seminary’s growing Doctor of Ministry program, Anderson assembled the massive anthropology, Theological Foundations for Ministry (1979). Not content with simply gathering a plethora of competing theologies for the student to be befuddled by, Anderson presented a coherent theology base on the Trinity and the incarnation, including generous selections from Barth, Bonhoeffer, Thomas and James Torrance, and others including the most ecclesiologically dynamic sections of Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God. Of special note is the essay by Anderson, “A Theology of Ministry,” in which he lays out the significance of ministry preceding and governing theology, not the opposite, based on an incarnational theology in which God is “on both sides” of both revelation and reconciliation. Reconciliation, like all of God’s ministry, is not to be left up to us! Such an anthology signaled to many that a new way of integrating theology and ministry was being proposed that did not simply try to find a lowest common denominator in ethical values or pastoral practice, but was based on the richness of the triune life of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This was a different kind of evangelical theology than the apologetics-driven heritage of the early Fuller Seminary, but one which was just as loyal to the ancient faith in the Trinity and the incarnation. Yet it was refreshingly free to acknowledge not just that Jesus Christ was God, but that God actually assumed human flesh, so an incarnational theology and ministry is not afraid but embraces the human, as messy as that might often be in the realities of ministry.

The incarnational imperative for the humanization of the world (including the church!) drove Anderson increasingly into questions of a theological anthropology. Questions of theological anthropology had begun to intrigue Anderson when he observed how little theological basis there exists with some colleagues at Westmont, whom otherwise possessed a strong, personally pious theology, yet seemed often to offer little integration with their academic disciplines. His pious colleagues seemed to be operating with more of a philosophical, non-theological anthropology than one that was rooted in the incarnation. The fruit of Anderson’s thinking came in 1982 with the publication of On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology. I don’t think that Karl Barth’s profound writings on the doctrine of humanity had ever been mined so thoroughly in light of pastoral and ministry practice. Yet Anderson remained certainly his own man. As a seminarian at the time, I remember vividly the excitement of Anderson’s terse yet provocative prose, bursting with genuine theological and ministerial potential. Not easy to digest for some, but for many, Anderson’s continuing “nervous, restless quality” was the stimulation to believe in the continued healing power of a trinitarian-incarnational theology. Many a Fuller Seminary student can attest to practically stumbling into a Ray Anderson class week upon week, beaten up by life’s events, desperately seeking the grace of God … and finding it in Ray’s provocative and faithful witness to Jesus Christ.

On Being Human only served to further ignite Anderson’s creative theological juices, particularly in the implications of a theological anthropology. Anderson’s theological anthropology is profoundly relational, including male and female relationships and the family, so it was natural that On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family, written with the family sociologist Dennis B. Guernsey, and the fruit of their team-taught course at Fuller, “Theology and Ecology of the Family,” was published in 1984. The provocative and pastoral thinking on death and dying in On Being Human led to Theology, Death and Dying in 1982. Anderson was fond of mischievously suggesting that he wanted the book to be entitled, On Being Dead, in order to harmonize with On Being Human and On Being Family, and perhaps include ethics and be called, On Being Good and Dead!

Anderson integrative interests continued to be broad and sweeping with the volume on leadership, Minding God’s Business, in 1982 and one on counseling, Christians Who Counsel, in 1990. No shoddy thinking here, Anderson demonstrated his theological bravery is taking on such “nuts and bolts” issues of ministry.

In 1991, Anderson wrote his first “popular” book, but one that is truly profound in its thinking: The Gospel According to Judas: Is There a Limit to God’s Forgiveness? Featuring an imaginary conversation between Jesus and Judas after Judas’s death, this book has deeply affected and challenged many in how shallow our view of grace and forgiveness really is. Still, many have been offended, even with the later version, Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul (2005). These little books still continue to have a great ministry, including, Anderson tells, even with a convicted murderer serving life in prison. Concern for the individual desperately needing the grace of God is evident many of Anderson’s later books such as, Don’t Give Up On Me – I’m Not Finished Yet! Putting the Finishing Touches on the Person You Want to Be (1994), its more technical cousin, Self-Care: A Theology of Personal Empowerment and Spiritual Healing, Living the Spiritually Balanced Life: Acquiring the Virtues You Admire (1998), Everything That Make Me Happy I Learned When I Grew Up (1995), Unspoken Wisdom: Truths My Father Taught Me (1995), Exploration Into God: Sermonic Meditations on the Book of Ecclesiastes (2006), and The Seasons of Hope: Empowering Faith Through the Practice of Hope (2008).

The church, the corporate, communal and relational nature of the Christian life and the presence of Christ today, however, was never far from Anderson’s thought and pen. Ministry on the Fireline: A Practical Theology for an Empowered Church (1993) challenged the need for evangelical theology which emphasizes a “Word” theology to embrace as well a “Spirit” or “Pentecostal” theology of the presence of the Holy Spirit in mission. Such concerns continued with what the summary of decades of Ray Anderson’s thinking on a theology of ministry based on a trinitarian-incarnational theology: The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People (1997). Wide-ranging concerns from homosexuality to “The Humanity of God in the Soul of the City” are developed in light of a trinitarian model of practical theology in The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis. Anderson’s disgust in the lack of practical ecclesiology in much of modern systematic theology reflects his desire to leave “systematic theology” behind for the sake of “practical theology.” This direction from systematic to practical theology is spelled out more in detail theologically in The Soul of God: A Theological Memoir (2004).

Anderson continued to provoke his evangelical roots (and colleagues!) with Dancing with Wolves While Feeding the Sheep: The Musings of a Maverick Theologian (2001) with such chapters as, “Was Jesus an Evangelical?”(the “wolves” are his faculty colleagues!). One of Anderson’s most challenging proposals is his practical theology for secular caregivers found in Spiritual Caregiving as Secular Sacrament: A Practical Theology for Professional Caregivers (2003).There are many treasures of ideas in all of these books, ideas that have much appreciated by colleagues and students alike through the years. Much critical thinking stimulated by Ray Anderson’s theology can be found in the two Festschriften edited in honor of Ray: Incarnational Ministry: The Presence of Christ in Church, Society, and Family: Essays in Honor of Ray S. Anderson (eds. Christian D. Kettler and Todd H. Speidell) (1990), including essays by Thomas Torrance, James Torrance, Geoffrey Bromiley, Colin Gunton, Alan Lewis, and Lewis Smedes (with a telling introduction by the president of Fuller Seminary, David Allan Hubbard and a bibliography through 1990) and On Being Christian … and Human: Essays in Celebration of Ray S. Anderson (ed. Todd H. Speidell) (2002), which includes contributions by many of Ray’s former students, including LeRon Shults and Willie Jennings and an essay on “Community in the Life and Theology of Ray Anderson” by Daniel Price (along with a bibliography through 2002). Also included are the case studies used by Anderson for many years in his theology sequence of courses.

Karl Barth, in the lectures he gave during his tour of the United States late in his life, remarks that what he desires for Americans is to be freed for a “theology of freedom.” In a way, I think Ray Anderson is the purest example of an answer to Barth’s desire for America: A theologian who has always been first of all a pastor of a concrete, local church, never deserting the church for the rarified air of seclusion in the academy, never deserting particular, actual people for abstract values or virtues. For most of Anderson’s over twenty years of seminary teaching he was preaching every week at the “high of the low churches,” Harbour Fellowship. Anderson builds upon Barth’s revolution but is distinctly a theologian for the church in the U.S. today. Much is made today of a need for a theology of “globalization” and “postmodernism” and certainly the church and the gospel are for the world. But Anderson’s roots in a South Dakota farm and an evangelical parish become real in a theology that takes very seriously actual human beings and concrete situations in the church, not to be swallowed up by what can become abstract ideals and causes, from orthodoxy to social justice.

I have just finished a work that is to be a little introduction to Anderson’s work entitled, Reading Ray S. Anderson: Theology as Ministry, Ministry as Theology. I am pleased that Ray was able to read the preface and seemed happy (and embarrassed!) by the book. “Theology as Ministry” particularly relates to the doctrines of God and theological anthropology. “Ministry as Theology” suggests the profound integration of a theology praxis to the church in its ministry and mission. But the dialectical aspect of “Theology as Ministry, Ministry as Theology” should not be forgotten. There is one ministry of God, Anderson contends, the ministry of Jesus Christ. Theology only seeks to serve that ministry. Anderson has been well known for his uses of cases studies in exploring the implications of theology in ministry. (The actual cases he uses for examinations in his courses are found in the second Festschrift, On Being Christian … and Human, edited by Todd Speidell). So at the end of each chapter I have included a case that which “fleshes out” the implications of that chapter for ministry. I think you’ll find that the writings of Ray Anderson will be an incredible stimulation to your participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Barth conference updates

If you’re interested in the Princeton Barth Conference, you can keep an eye on Travis and Darren for summaries and updates. Darren has also posted a summary of the lecture I gave this morning.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Karl Barth and paganism: toward a theology without nature

I’ll be presenting a paper on Barth and paganism at the Princeton conference tomorrow morning. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Within contemporary paganism, there are two main forms which this theologised nature-devotion may take. Nature may (this is the usual response) be celebrated as the caring, mothering womb, the source of all love and kindness. In this approach, all the emphasis falls on the sacred feminine; one reconnects with nature by dancing in a field, being kind to animals, practising vegetarianism, and so forth. Or nature may (as in some of the Nordic varieties of contemporary paganism) be revered for its dark and terrible power, its exhilarating cruelty and might. Here, the emphasis falls not on the sacred feminine but on patriarchal and hierarchical structures; one reconnects with nature by dressing in warrior raiment, by engaging in the hunt, by sacrifice, libation, carnivorous feasting. These two varieties of contemporary paganism have an uneasy relationship, since, on the surface, their attitudes and practices seem antithetical. But as Marion Bowman has documented, these very different pagan groups nevertheless band together and perceive each other to be members of a wider pagan family, united by their ritual and theological devotion to nature. For all their differences, they are sides of the same coin: a response to the theologisation of nature.

“Of course, the appropriation of paganism by contemporary Christian theologians and liturgists leans decisively towards the happy side of nature, so that everything centres on the sacred, nurturing kindness of Mother Earth; even the most progressive Christian liturgists with their flowers and their Maypoles would presumably have second thoughts about summoning the congregation to a bloody hunt in the woods as a means of reconnecting with the earth. The real problem with syncretistic pagan-Christian theologies and liturgies lies not in their benign adaptation of rural festivals, but in their uncritical adoption of this theologisation of the transcendental category of nature.”

Saturday, 20 June 2009

On audio books: A Clockwork Orange

Since I moved to Sydney this year, I’ve found that commuting has become a regular part of my routine (about 8 hours a week). So to fill the void, I’ve been devouring all manner of radio plays, recordings, and audio books: dramatised mysteries by Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, audio readings of dystopian novels (e.g. Brave New World and 1984: somehow, dystopia is very believable when one is commuting), Alastair Cooke’s wonderful Letters from America (I love these, and am working my way slowly through various decades).

But my greatest discovery has been the Tom Hollander reading of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This is an absolutely astonishing vocal performance: in this case I think the recording actually surpasses the original text – or rather, it carries the text through to perfection.

In this performance, the formidable avalanche of Nadsat (the fictional slang dialect in which the first-person narrator speaks) becomes immediately intuitive and comprehensible – more than that, the language becomes utterly gripping, sometimes sinister, often hilariously funny, at times hauntingly poetic and deeply moving. I reckon this performance makes it clear that the whole novel is primarily about language itself: about the worlds language creates, the worlds it divides, the worlds it destroys. Believe me, O my brothers, to sloosh that chelloveck govoretting all those bolshy slovos is real horrorshow. Very, very horrorshow.

So, anyone else know of any good audio books? I just finished this one tonight, so I’ll soon be scratching around for something new.

Anyway, all this Clockwork-Oranging has also made me wonder what a Nadsat Bible version would look like – here’s my rendering of the opening verses of 1 John:

“That which was from the starry raz, which we have slooshied, which we have viddied real horrorshow with our glazzies, which we have smotted, and we’ve shvatted with our rocks, concerning the slovo of jeezny – the jeezny was manifested, and we have viddied, and we govoreet to you that eternal jeezny which was with the starry Pee and was govoreeted to us – that which we have viddied and slooshied we govoreet to thou, O brothers, that thou mayest be all droogie with us, and all that cal.”
On another note, I just noticed that F&T had its one-millionth visitor today: welcome!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

More on sex, theology and humanness

The discussion of sex and humanness has continued on various blogs, including the following:

Leaving in the morning, if I have to ride the blinds

Blogging here might be lighter than usual over the next couple of weeks. I’ll be heading across the Pacific to the Princeton Barth Conference, where I’m giving a paper on “Karl Barth and Paganism: Towards a Theology without Nature.” Then I’m hurrying back for the AACC conference in Brisbane, where I’ll be giving a paper on “Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse.”

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Why sex tells you nothing about what it means to be human

Halden posts a superb quote from Rowan Williams’ essay, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (1997), pp. 25-26:

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the NT eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”

And in a follow-up post, Halden raises some critical questions about Karl Barth’s idea (he might also have mentioned John Paul II) that sexual differentiation is the defining feature of our humanness, the key that unlocks the door to human identity. Halden concludes with the provocative statement: “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness” – since Jesus himself did not participate in any of these experiences.

There’s a storm of comments responding to Halden’s post – but personally, I think he’s absolutely right. In this connection, I think more Christians would benefit from reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1976). Foucault overturns the historical myth that we are liberating ourselves from a period of sexual “repression”; on the contrary, one of the central themes of modernity is the idea that we must constantly speak about our sexuality. By analysing our own sexuality, we believe we will finally discover the deep secret truth of our humanness. Foucault’s argument shows that we are obsessed not with sex itself (as a physical act), but with “the truth of sex” – with the idea that sex is a revelation of truth. Thus we form sexual sub-cultures; we worry about the ever-more-precise definition of all our sexual habits and preferences (just look at the amazing proliferation of technical sexual terminology since the 19th century); we constantly think about our sexuality; we write about it incessantly; we “confess” our sexual secrets and peculiarities to counsellors and psychoanalysts; we have never been fully honest about ourselves until we have given utterance to our sexuality. (A fascinating example of this is the way biographers assume that the sexual life of their subjects will disclose the deep secret truth about who they “really” are.)

As the passage above from Rowan Williams indicates, our assumptions about the revelatory character of sex are so deeply ingrained that we simply assume (against all evidence) that the New Testament writers were also preoccupied with questions about the meaning of sex, or that they must have some answers to our own pressing questions about sex.

I think this can be especially hard for Christians to grasp, since a very deep part of our moral formation has been the belief that human identity is ultimately wrapped up in the suburban bliss of family life. (On which, see the TV series Mad Men...) This is also why our churches are often so strangely inhospitable to “single” (read: pre-married) people. We simply can’t really believe that these people are fully formed human beings. And so we treat them with all the sympathy or suspicion or indifference that their estate demands; our charity might even compel us to subject them to the peculiar indignity of a “singles” social event, all in the hope that the bright truth of sex will at last dawn in their dark lives.


So what’s the upshot of all this? For one thing, I think Christians ought to take much more seriously the category of friendship, while thinking a good deal more critically about the unbridled theologisation of marriage and the so-called “family unit”. Is it at least possible that the idle carefree banter of friendship might tell us more about “what it means to be human” than any anxious confession of one’s darkest sexual longings or secrets? Might friendship itself – so lacking in anxiety, so free and undemanding – provide a much-needed critique of our culture’s profound sexual anxiety, an anxiety which is simply part and parcel of the dubious (and ultimately theological) doctrine that the truth of our humanness is disclosed in the truth of sex?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

What to read? Literature and ecclesiology

Nate Kerr will be well known to most of you, both for his regular interactions here at F&T and for his stunning recent book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Cascade 2009). Well, Nate is currently in the throes of writing his next book, a series of essays on the nature and task of the church. And he has asked, learned readers, for your assistance.

Nate likes to read novels and literature while he’s engaged in intensive writing. So he’s wondering what y’all (as they say in Nashville) think are the best works of literature relating to “ecclesiology” – novels, short stories, poems, or whatever. In Nate’s own words: “I wonder if you would be kind enough to do a post entreating readers to help me in writing my next book, by suggesting the best [fictional/literary] works on the church for me to read as I’m currently writing.”

So what do you think? Come and have your say – that way, if Nate’s next book turns out to be an ecclesiological masterpiece, you’ll be able to claim full credit…

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Censoring comedy: why Australia needs the Chaser's War on Everything

They’ve done it all. They breached security at the APEC summit in a fake motorcade. They flew a blimp over the Vatican, advertising “young boys”. They sold fake weapons to football fans before a game. They approached the prime minister with a running chainsaw. They did an infamous eulogy ridiculing the public mourning of deceased celebrities like Steve Irwin and Princess Diana.

But last week, Australia’s most popular comedy show – I’m talking, of course, about The Chaser’s War on Everything – last week, they finally went too far. The Chaser boys did a black comedy spoof of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, suggesting that terminally ill children should be invited to “Make a Realistic Wish” (instead of that trip to Disneyland, we’ll give you a pencil case). After all, the skit concluded: “Why go to any trouble, when they’re only gonna die anyway?”

Well, next morning the whole country seemed abuzz with outcries of complaint and condemnation. Everyone was talking about it. The Chasers were roundly condemned on the news media (if there’s one thing that really gets the media excited, it’s a good lynching!). Even the prime minister televised a public statement, condemning the skit as “absolutely beyond the pale”.

The Chaser boys themselves were forced – kicking and screaming, no doubt – to make a heartfelt public apology. And, as a “precautionary” measure, the show was censored: it has been pulled off the air for two weeks.

Now everyone agrees that the skit was tasteless. But it seems to me that the really interesting question here is not about the skit itself, but about the way our society reacts to a skit like this. Our public discourse in Australia gives so little thought to questions of virtue, the common good, the moral formation of society. So why all this public moral posturing all of a sudden? Why do we respond with such vehement moral outrage to a mere television show? Why do we cry for blood, demanding immediate censorship, intervention, retribution? In short, what does all this moral outrage tell us about ourselves?

My own hunch is that a society like ours – a society lacking any public discourse of virtue and the common good – actually needs moral outrage. It’s our compass: it’s all we have left to assure ourselves that our public life is not devoid of all moral shape. When the prime minister solemnly protests that a TV comedy skit is “beyond the pale”, he is appealing to our lingering intuition that there is some public “good”, that there must be more to life than the blank cheque of liberal “freedom”, that our society must be something more than a morally vacuous crowd of consumers governed by the neutral apparatus of democratic capitalism.

In short, when virtue disappears from public life, we fill the gap with moral outrage. And that’s why Australia needs the Chaser’s War on Everything. What else will we do on Wednesday nights, now that the show has been censored? Where else will we go to find our weekly dose of moral outrage? Who else can we blame and excoriate, in order to assert our own moral uprightness, in order to assure ourselves that all is well?

Late capitalist societies thrive on moral outrage: our public life demands it. But that is nothing to be proud of. All our pompous spluttering should remind us that we have lost something vital; that at the centre of our public life is a dark vacuum; that all our moral posturing is finally nothing else than a thin band-aid applied to a deep and festering wound.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Is there life before death? On aged care and anxiety

A guest-post by Scott Stephens (an abridged version of this post was published in Eureka Street)

Sigmund Freud once wrote that the only feeling that doesn’t lie is anxiety. This is a hard thing for us to hear, because few feelings terrify us more than anxiety. Anxiety disrupts our carefully constructed and managed zones of comfort, and acts as a stubborn reminder of the world without. Anxiety, in other words, is the way are affected by the reality of the things we can’t change, the things that just won’t go away. Perhaps that’s why we try so hard to suppress it. We convince ourselves that, if we ignore it, if we sedate it, if we pretend it isn’t there, if we close our eyes, it will just go away. To be sure, one of the great luxuries of modern life is that we have so many ways of avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.

If we don’t like the traumatic images we are seeing on SBS World News, we change the channel and watch The Biggest Loser instead. If we don’t like what we are hearing on Radio National, there’s plenty of vulgar banality waiting on Triple M. If you don’t like all that talk you hear in church about sin, repentance and following Jesus, you can always stay home and watch Hillsong and feel much better about yourself. And that’s not even to mention our contemporary panoply of narcotics – from alcohol and prozac to retail therapy and comfort food.

But deep down, the anxiety never goes away. It’s always there, lurking just beneath the surface. As Freud explained, anxiety is immutable because, ultimately, it is the chill of death’s own inevitability. So what happens when we try to do to death what we do to our other, more contingent sources of anxiety, and just ‘change the channel’? How, in other words, do we try to forget our own mortality? The answer is devastatingly simple: nursing homes.

While there are, no doubt, some wonderful examples of aged care facilities that provide both community and dignity for those who have entered their twilight years and are in need of additional care, this is certainly not the experience of the majority of our elderly. For, increasingly, the elderly have become the ritual sacrifices that we as a society offer to the most implacable of our modern gods: what Hervé Juvin has described (in his mordant masterpiece, L’avènement du corps) as a kind of provisional immortality, a deathless existence realized in unlimited consumption.

Precisely because they are painful reminders of our mortality and fragility, and thus disrupt our sacrosanct comfort, so many of our elderly are consigned to sub-standard, and often degrading, care as a way of classifying them as not really alive, but ‘not yet dead’. The cold reality of aged care is that institutionalization has become a mechanism of our desire to forget death and our wish to go on living unperturbed in our capitalist nirvana.

But it is now imperative that we recognize that our collective failure to care for – and indeed to honour – the lives of our elderly degrades us all. Further, the systemic forgetting of the elderly is one of the great causes of the weakness and moral impoverishment in our culture. Lives tempered by age and shaped by hard-earned virtue are gifts of God, and it is to our detriment that we ignore them.

Perhaps it is time to revive the long Christian tradition that regarded old age as a theatre of virtue and courage. Aging was imagined as a kind of final transaction, whereby the elderly show what the good life looks like, having finally reached the point where they can drop all pretense and start telling the story of their lives honestly – or, to put it in a more Augustinian fashion, to tell the story of their lives as an unbroken confession of sin enabled by God’s grace.

But the elderly, in this perspective, also bear witness to what the good death looks like, how to face the completion of one’s life with courage and faith. Aquinas, for instance, regarded the martyr as the archetype for Christian courage in the face of death. All the while, those gathered round in loving community express their humble gratitude for these lives well lived, and urge them not to waver in their faith as they sprint toward their final prize.

There is a rather surprising fictional counterpart to this Christian tradition in the final volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The children, Lyra and Will, have made their perilous journey to the world of the dead on the pretense that Lyra must apologise to a friend she inadvertently betrayed, and for whose death she was responsible. Once there, it becomes clear that their destiny is much grander than that: their destiny is to defeat death itself by, quite literally, cutting a hole in the other side of this cavernous Sheol and thereby allowing the atoms of the ghosts of the dead to disperse into the benign indifference of the universe.

When one of the harpies – whose role is to torment the dead by hissing and spitting their venomous reminders of the dead’s failed lives – objects that releasing the dead would negate their very reason for being, one of the children’s traveling companions makes a remarkable suggestion:

‘Then’, said Tialys, ‘let’s make a bargain with you. Instead of seeing only the wickedness and cruelty and greed of the ghosts that come down here, from now on you will have the right to ask every ghost to tell you the story of their lives, and they will have to tell the truth about what they’ve seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world. Every one of these ghosts has a story; every single one that comes down in the future will have true things to tell you about the world. And you’ll have the right to hear them, and they will have to tell you.’

Could not this rather purgatorial vocation be a model of the community’s care of the elderly? To listen with humble gratitude to lives that have finally learned to tell the truth about themselves, that have stripped themselves of every last shred of pretense, and that now simply need a loving community to hear.

However much our death-defined culture may wish to deny it, there is life before death. It may be weak and frail, but so are the other gifts that God has given us in order to demonstrate his grace, and confound our supposed strength. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’.

Friday, 5 June 2009

On Richard Bauckham's books

by Kim Fabricius (a letter responding to an interview with Richard Bauckham in the last issue of the United Reformed Church magazine, Reform)

Sir:
Did anyone notice the bookshelves in the photo of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham in the June Reform? Novels. Lots of novels. Quality novels. Even without a magnifying glass I could make out the fiction of Franz Kafka, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Jim Crace, and others.

There is a lesson here. Fiction is as intrinsic to continuing ministerial education as theology. And that’s because there is no greater theological resource for moral and spiritual formation than a great novel, with its enchantment of the everyday, whether tragic or comic; its discernment of the sacred in the secular; its disinterested rather than pragmatic take on human existence; its purposive narrative structure and focus on character, virtuous and vicious. You might say that if literature without theology is empty, theology without literature is blind.

That’s why, in my book (so to speak!), Reformed ministers who haven't read, as set texts, say Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov, are as suspect as those who haven’t studied Calvin and Barth. That’s also why it should come as no surprise that the most recent book by Rowan Williams, Britain’s greatest living theologian, is entitled Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008). Among contemporary novels, forget about The Shack – it’s awful – but you must read, for the sheer grace and truth of it, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). In fact, ministers who don’t or won't read it should be shot.

Ben’s note: Congratulations to Marilynne Robinson, who was yesterday awarded the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (h/t Tom and Sean). If you’re lucky enough to be in Princeton this year, I believe Robinson will also be visiting the Center of Theological Inquiry to run a special workshop for Christian writers. A couple of years back I also posted a review of Robinson's Gilead – it’s far and away one of the greatest contemporary American novels.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Tokens: theology on the radio

Someone was telling me the other day about this Nashville radio show, TOKENS. They describe it as “part theology lecture, part cultural analysis, part good conversation, part good music..., an exploration of the intersections between faith, music, and culture.” The creator and host is Lee Camp, author of Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Brazos 2008). Anyone know about this radio show? It sounds good.

Oh, and are there any other Nashville fans out there? I’ve only visited once in my life, but I swear it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. The theologians! The bars! The bourbon! The cafes crammed with indolent students and musicians! Paul DeHart’s encyclopedic ruminations on American music history! Seriously, that city has it all...

My only regret (it pains me to mention it) is that my last visit to Nashville was just one day too early to catch Iron & Wine performing at the Ryman. Oh, and did I mention the new Iron & Wine album? You can live and die to music like this:

Sunday evening my Rebecca’s lost a book she never read
And the moon already fell into the sea
Saw the statues of our fathers in the courthouse flower bed
Now they blend with all the lightning-tattered trees

Clothed in all that's prodigal and strange

Monday, 1 June 2009

Excluding the other: 10 theses

It’s spreading. The risk of pandemic is becoming very real. Not so long ago, you were safe. The problem was confined to a few isolated places in remote corners of the globe. It happened to people you didn’t know. It thrived only in certain dark, moist, underground environments (philosophy departments, postgraduate seminars and the like). But these days, it’s everywhere. It’s affecting entire communities. Even the most harmless and benign members of the public – clergymen, bureaucrats, environmental activists – are succumbing to its influence.

Yep, you’ve guessed it: I’m talking about the spreading pandemic of talk about “the other.” These days, you can hear it in the most unlikely places: a vegetarian activist worries about “the animal other”; a committee worries about “the rights” of “the other” to be heard and included; even preachers are getting involved, proclaiming the solemn mandate of “respect for the other.”

So I’m afraid there’s only one solution: a five-year moratorium on all talk about “the other” in ethical and theological discourse! 


Here are ten theses explaining why this moratorium is absolutely necessary:
  1. Most of the people talking about “the other” haven’t read even a single book by Emmanuel Levinas, and thus have no idea what the term actually means.
  2. At least in theological circles, the term functions mainly as an emotional trigger: someone mentions “the other”, and suddenly we feel all warm and tingly. 
  3. Sometimes, these warm and tingly feelings lead us to imagine that something meaningful was actually said.
  4. Levinas deploys the concept of “the other” as part of a larger set of philosophical arguments about the relations between ethics and ontology, language and presence, ethics and morality. 
  5. If “the other” is to function as a normative concept in theological discourse (as it does already in some circles), we should hear some justification of the validity and importance of this broader philosophical schema within which the concept is located. 
  6. In particular, Christians might wonder precisely how “truth” is supposed to fit into this schema.
  7. And we might wonder whether a “humanitarianism of the other” fits rather too neatly with an evacuation of political decision from the sphere of international relations: i.e., whether benevolent talk about “the other” (like talk about “human rights”) is fundamentally a concealment of the operations of power. 
  8. Speaking of power: if I conclude a theological argument by appealing to “the other”, am I not invoking a transcendental norm whose role is precisely to silence any possible objection to my argument?
  9. I once attended a philosophy conference on the ethics of “the other.” The scholarly discussion of Levinas somehow turned to animal ethics, and before long one of the presenters was tearfully describing his household pets. I looked around, and was embarrassed to see that many of the participants were also in tears; it was like an old-time revival meeting, except without God. 
  10. This incident confirmed the truth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell is the others). But Sartre was not quite right. Hell is not the other; hell is the place where everyone talks about the other.

New book

Archive

Contact

Although I'm not always able to reply to all emails, please feel free to contact me.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO