Thursday, 30 July 2009

Butterflyfish: songs for children

As a parent of young children, I often gripe about the abysmal quality of products made for kids – especially that dismal cacophony of books and music that is marketed each year to young children. Bright sparkly sticker-infested books, bursting at the seams with bad grammar, colourless characters, incoherent plots, hackneyed illustrations, and all those endlessly repeated psycho-spiritual-gender banalities which have come to constitute The Disney Worldview (a worldview that is infinitely more malignant and more destructive than anything Lars von Trier could ever dream up).

Similarly, where children’s music is concerned (I won’t even mention television shows), the ruling principle seems to be: Any old crap will do; after all, they’re only kids. No need for lyrical imagination; no need for creativity; no need for musical talent or versatility. Just rhyme a few words, grunt out a few lines, bang out a couple of chords on your cheap electric keyboard – it’s good enough for the kids.

If you have young children in your home, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Which is why it’s so refreshing when occasionally you come across a piece of real music for children. That was how we felt when Roger Flyer (a regular friend here at F&T) sent me a copy of one of his wonderful CDs for children: a CD that I know very well indeed, since my kids have been listening to it almost every night for the past 18 months!

Anyway, while I was in Princeton last month, one of the highlights was getting to know the brilliant young Harvard theologian, Matthew Myer Boulton. Not only is he the author of a superb book on Barth and worship, but he’s also the singer-songwriter for a sweet and groovy children’s band, Butterflyfish. He gave me a copy of their brand new debut CD, Ladybug – and after listening to it dozens (hundreds?) of times now, I’m pleased to report that this is the real deal: an album that kids adore, and that grownup folks will also continue to enjoy after countless hours of repeat listening.

The album is musically vibrant, surprising and exciting: it blends styles as diverse as bluegrass, country, jazz and gospel, in a way that brings out that characteristic joy and lilt and humour of American folk music. And the lyrics (all written by Matt Boulton) are quite wonderful: linguistically inventive, poetically playful, and at times also theologically serious and reflective. Where so many kids’ CDs are characterised by attitudes of patronising banality, it’s a tremendous pleasure to hear music like this: music that takes children seriously, music that respects its audience, music premised on the assumption that young children are capable of lively joy, honest reflection, and exuberant aesthetic delight.

The songs range from the light-hearted jollity of “Ladybug” to the fast-paced rollicking bluegrass adventure of “What Jonah Learned Inside the Whale” (“He learned that whales have no teeth, but they do have great big tongues; / God is underneath everything and everyone”), to the delicate and imaginative “Noah’s Lullaby”, the jubilant a cappella celebration “Deep Down in My Heart”, and the rich smoky-jazz-bar groove of “There Is a Love”.

But the real highlight is the extraordinary track, “All Sad Songs.” I’ve never heard a children’s song quite like this – and without getting too carried away in autobiographical pathos, I might also admit that it’s probably the only song from a children’s CD that has ever made me cry. Here are the lyrics:

It’s been all sad songs since you’ve left
I’ve cried and I’ve kept my sorrow so deep inside
And I’ve swept up all of my pride
Sad songs since you died

It’s been all sad songs since you went away
I’ve been lost, and sleeping right through the day
This has cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
But that cost me all that I had
Now the songs are all sad

(Male voice: La la la…)

But then Mary came to our house of shame
To proclaim that you were alive again
And the grave was as empty and dark
As my broken heart

Something deep inside of me
So wanted to believe
That the grave is as empty and dark
As my broken heart

(Female voice: La la la…)

I know all sad songs have another verse
It’s the one the heavenly choirs rehearse
For that day when the broken will mend
And the sad songs will end

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

(Both voices: La la la…)

God will wipe away all our tears
Banish the fears we’ve collected for all these years
On that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end

Something deep inside of me
Can’t help it but believe
In that day when the broken will mend
The sad songs will end
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change

A remarkably poignant and sensitive meditation on death, grief, and the triumph of resurrection. The song reflects on music itself as an eschatological metaphor: God is writing another verse for our sad songs, and arranging the score in a different key. In the day of redemption, we will still sing our sad songs – nothing will be lost or forgotten – but these same songs will be translated into something new, utterly sublated so that they become songs of grace and redemption.

This metaphor is evoked very vividly in the song’s own arrangement. After describing his grief in the first verse and chorus, the lead voice sings a melancholy wordless tune, singing only the syllable “la la la…” But then after Mary’s announcement of the empty grave, a female voice enters the song. Again, she sings a wordless tune to the same music, but the melody has subtly changed so that those syllables now convey hope and light and sweetness. Then finally, after the verse describing the eschatological sublation of grief, the male and female voice join their wordless tunes together. Now the two distinct voices and melodies combine to produce a single harmony of redemption: the sad grieving voice is overlaid with a voice of hope and healing; or rather, the sad voice is lifted up into a harmony which fully includes the sad tune, yet utterly transforms it.

The female voice slips into the song so gently, so unobtrusively. The voice alights like a dove, then rises again, leading the male voice upwards. I’m reminded of George Herbert’s poem, “Easter Wings”, where God is depicted as a bird in flight, helping us to fly when our own wings are broken, so that we are raised up together and “combined” in one harmonious song. (As you can see in the picture below, the poem is itself shaped like two birds together in flight.) “With thee / Oh let me rise / As larks, harmoniously… With thee / Let me combine / And feel this day thy victorie: / For, if I imp my wing on thine / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”


The harmony of the two voices in “All Sad Songs” is like the movement of two birds in flight. The song’s whole theology of resurrection and hope is conveyed most powerfully here, in this simple monosyllabic harmony. My sadness has not fled, but another voice now sings with me, bearing me up, supporting my broken wing, lifting my mournful melody and translating it into a hymn of redemption. The same song – but how different now!

Not that we’ll forget, we’ll sing those songs yet
In a different key, we’ll sing differently
In the music God has arranged
All the sad songs will change.



My wife and I love this album just as much as our kids do. If you’re looking for some good music for your children, then why not grab a copy of Ladybug. And while you’re there, be sure to download the Butterflyfish colouring pages: because everything’s better in crayon.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Lars von Trier's Antichrist

“For what flood of eloquence can suffice to detail the miseries of this life?” —Augustine, City of God, 19.4.

Anthony points to a gripping and eloquent reflection on Lars von Trier’s controversial new film, Antichrist. “Antichrist is very obviously the product of a serious and prolonged depression of frankly theological proportions…. Nature has revealed itself as the relentlessly cruel, profoundly disgusting indifferent monster it always was; human nature is even worse, and women are as disturbed and disturbing as anything a malevolent deity could create in its worst dreams.”


As one of the film’s characters says: “Nature is Satan's church.” I haven’t seen Antichrist yet, but a friend who saw it at Cannes gave it this glowing recommendation: “My God, it’s absolutely brilliant! Pure evil.” You can take that either as a recommendation or a warning...

And speaking of the ambiguities of nature, David Bentley Hart has a new post on the Gnostic turn: “In a sense, a certain ‘Gnostic turn’ is inevitable for us today when we attempt to find our way towards the transcendent, inasmuch as we begin all our spiritual journeys now in a world from which the transcendent has been forcibly expelled, and not as a result of mere cultural prejudice…. We simply cannot now (if we are paying attention) imagine a universe whose grandeurs and mysteries unambiguously lead the reflective mind beyond themselves towards a transcendent order both benign and provident.”

Monday, 27 July 2009

The things that make for peace

I’ll be in Canberra tonight, launching a new book on justice and peacemaking: Heather Thomson, The Things That Make for Peace (Barton Books 2009). Here’s a brief excerpt from the talk I'll be giving about the book:

The book’s whole argument is grounded in an analogy between divine justice and transitional justice – where an unstable and turbulent political order mobilises new instruments, such as judicial mechanisms, amnesties and truth commissions, in order to move into the peace and justice of a new regime. God’s own justice is like this, Thomson argues. Divine justice establishes a new constitution and a new political order, and issues amnesties so that we may enter into the new regime with a clean slate. In this way, we are enabled to make the transition from the regimes that govern this world into the reign of God.

This vision of divine justice, Thomson observes, is something we see in Jesus, the one whose entire life was an argument – to the death – about ‘what God is like, what God requires of us, what God’s justice is like’. The atonement is not about satisfying divine justice, but about establishing a new reign that differs fundamentally from ‘the authoritarian, violent and repressive rule that belongs to this world’. The atonement ‘mediates a regime change’, so that we are led out ‘from the power and kingdoms of this world’ into the kingdom of God. As part of this transition, God forgives our sins – just as a new regime may issue amnesties so that citizens can leave behind their former political allegiances and enter guiltless into the collective project of a new common life. The death of Jesus thus opens up a space of metanoia, a change of mind in which we renounce our former allegiance to the violent powers of this world, and enter into the new reign of the Prince of Peace.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Introducing Giorgio Agamben: what is an apparatus?

I recently mentioned Leland de la Durantaye’s new critical introduction to Giorgio Agamben – a book which I’ve found extremely valuable and insightful. But if you’re not already familiar with Agamben’s works, you might find Durantaye’s 463-page volume a little intimidating. If you’re looking for the quickest, easiest, most accessible introduction to Agamben’s thought – an introduction that you can get through in a single hour – then there’s no better guide than Agamben’s own latest book (a tiny but potent 56 pages), What Is an Apparatus? (Stanford UP 2009).

This first essay, “What Is an Apparatus?”, provides a wonderfully concise snapshot of Agamben’s entire recent project, his “theological genealogy of economy” (8). In this little essay, Agamben uses Foucault’s concept of the apparatus to classify all beings in two groups: “living beings”, and “apparatuses in which living beings are incessantly captured”. In theological terminology, these two classes denote an ontology of creatures on the one hand, and on the other hand the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern these creatures (13). Between these two classes lies a third class: subjects. Agamben understands a subject as that which results from the relation between living beings and apparatuses.

This concept of the apparatus reflects Foucault’s understanding of the formation of subjectivity. Apparatuses are not a mere accident; they are “rooted in the very process of ‘humanization’ that made ‘humans’ out of … Homo sapiens” (16). They are not instruments of violence, but of governance and subjectification. The apparatus is thus always something that produces its own subject. But the current phase of capitalism has witnessed a proliferation of new apparatuses to capture every moment and facet of life; and these capitalist apparatuses subjectify only by desubjectifying (just as, for Foucault, the penitential subject is constituted through its own negation). In any case, our formation as subjects is always a process of interruption by which the apparatus separates us from our immediate relation to our environment.

Fundamentally, such separation is religion. Religion takes things from the domain of common use and places them in a separate sphere; religion consecrates. The situation of our time demands a new politics of profanation, where that which has been separated/consecrated is restored to common use. In this way, “profanation is the counter-apparatus” (19). Our capitalist world has become “a sort of colossal parody of theological oikonomia”, in which apparatuses “assume the legacy of the providential governance of the world” (23). These apparatuses can be resisted – we can intervene in their process of subjectification – only through profanation. It is profanation which brings to light “the Ungovernable, which is the beginning and, at the same time, the vanishing point of every politics” (24).

It’s a splendid little essay (the volume also includes essays on “the friend” and “the contemporary”). I’ve never come across such a concise, lucid, programmatic statement of Agamben’s project.


This essay also makes it very clear that all Agamben’s recent work on theological economy is structured at its deepest level by Foucault’s understanding of power and subjectivity (not to mention Foucauldian concepts like archaeology, genealogy, biopolitics, etc) – even though figures like Benjamin and Schmitt sometimes linger nearer the surface of Agamben’s texts. As Agamben himself remarked in a recent interview: “I see my work as closer to no one than to Foucault” (cited in Durantaye, 209).

Interested in William Stringfellow?

Anthony Dancer (who edited this book) and Myles Werntz are planning to draw together a consortium of people interested in the work of William Stringfellow. They will be compiling an email list in the next few days, to create a discussion about bringing together theologians working with or on Stringfellow. If you're interested in joining this discussion, feel free to email Myles.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Church Dogmatics in Korean

A quick question: Do any of you learned readers know about the Korean edition of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics? I want to get the full set for our college library, but so far we’ve only been able to track down a handful of volumes. I’m assuming the full work has been translated into Korean – does anyone know about this? And does anyone know where the full set can be ordered?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Political theology on the radio

ABC Radio National has a terrific new programme on political theology, featuring William Cavanaugh, Simon Critchley, Gopal Balakrishnan, and our own Scott Stephens.

The programme focuses especially on the legacy of Carl Schmitt. It’s a very wide-ranging discussion that moves through Thomas Hobbes, liberal democracy, capitalism, multiculturalism, secularisation, and the modern university. It’s great stuff – on the Radio National website, the programme is available both in audio and as a transcript. Here are a couple of highlights:

William Cavanaugh: “All politics are theological I think in the sense that they marshal large transcendent visions of human origins and human destiny.”

Scott Stephens: “One of the effects of our current celebration of tolerance, of the value of multiculturalism, … is the image of all of these different cultures, all of these different religions … living side by side in a benign inclination towards one another…. But what we don’t recognise is that the only way for all of these cultures to exist side by side, the only way for people to be able to opt in and opt out, … is for all of these cultures to be completely flattened out, to be hollowed out of any zestiness, of any distinctive or specific qualities…. These cultures can only exist side by side when they have already been hollowed out and co-opted by liberal capitalism. In other words, these cultures can only exists side by side once they have been transformed into relatively meaningless commodities. So I think what we need to recover today – and what I think political theology gives us – is the opportunity to recover something like authentic, profound, meaningful disagreement.”

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Once more on the self in cyberspace: a theology of avatars

I’ve been revising my recent conference paper on blogging for publication. I don’t mean to bore you with more excerpts – but here’s a brief section that I ended up deleting from the paper. (Technically, that means I’m posting my trash here. Sorry about that...)

In Cities of God, Graham Ward worries that virtual reality is becoming not “the other of the real”, but “a parallel world to the real one”, so that the ontological difference between them collapses. Ward’s analysis is, I think, correct. But this is not something to be lamented – as though the solution were to drive a deeper wedge between “real reality” and “virtual reality”. Instead, the significant point is precisely that the distinction between “real” reality and “virtual” reality is purely a nominal one. The virtual world is not a different place, an indistinct zone which one occasionally visits; it is simply the name for particular sets of practices and social relations.

Such a recognition – that cyberspace is no less “real” than the tangible, material world – is essential for any Christian ethical reflection on cyberspace. If I consume internet porn, I am not indulging in a “virtual” (i.e. less-than-real) act. If I have a conversation with someone on a blog, this is not a “virtual” act either; it is a practice involving particular kinds of relations between persons. If I have an avatar in a gaming environment, or in Second Life, this too is not merely a virtual representation of my true self; it is in some sense an extension of the self, a manifestation of the self under different social constraints and conditions. If my cyber-self is far more violent, more aggressive or more erotic than my non-virtual self, this might have more to do with the differing sets of social constraints in web environments: so that it is sometimes tempting to regard the avatar not as a virtual reality, but as an uninhibited, more real manifestation of the self.

If you want to insist that such an avatar could never be the “real you”, then you might consider how the “real” self is manifest in various day-to-day relationships. In our differing roles and relationships, we all deploy various personae or avatars: I have one persona at an academic conference, but quite another when I’m talking with my one-year-old son, and a different one again when I’m talking with a close friend, or with my employer. Which of these is the “real” self? Isn’t the self precisely an assemblage of such avatars, without the guarantee of any deep underlying essence?

This might all sound very postmodern and constructivist. But think for a moment of the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. Many scholars have bravely tried to develop a psychological profile of Jesus, to plumb the mysterious depths of his inner self. But the reason such attempts have so notoriously failed is that Jesus simply has no inner life; his identity is his deeds. One can know everything about him simply by observing what he does on the surface. When John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire after Jesus’ identity, Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22-23). The true self is right there in front of you, right on the surface.

At a 1964 Halloween concert in Carnegie Hall, Bob Dylan offered the humorous remark: “It’s Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.” Is not every self an assemblage of such masquerades? Do we need to imagine the self as some deep underlying essence? Is the self not rather simply the continual surfacing of one’s being into material relations with others?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Advice for writers

Anthony links to some great advice for writers from the philosopher Graham Harman. (I’ve read parts of his book Tool-Being, and he’s an excellent writer with a brisk, arresting style.) Harman is live blogging his current book-project, with daily posts describing the writing process. At the moment, he is drafting one chapter each day – a Herculean schedule!

I like the way Harman acknowledges the importance of planning while accepting that the actual results of writing will often turn out to be completely different from what was planned. As a young chap, I was an avid short story writer. I remember feeling utterly debilitated when I attended a writing class one day, and was offered the well-meaning advice that every story should follow a clear plan. (I took the advice to heart, and stopped writing stories.) Actually, many fiction writers begin with something as simple as a single sentence or the name of a character: and then the writing process supplies the rest. Some writers work best by developing a plan and then executing it; but for some of us, writing has a mind of its own.

I also especially like the way Harman organises his whole writing schedule around the conditions necessary for good morale. This is important, since loss of morale is probably the biggest obstacle for most of us who try to write.

I’ve often been struck by the fact that a period of intensive writing has exactly the same symptoms as chronic depression – or rather, if someone described the symptoms of depression, you would think they were simply talking about writing. “I have sudden inexplicable mood swings. I am anxious and dejected. I am awake late at night, and can’t get out of bed in the morning. I’ve lost interest in normal activities. I forget to shower and groom myself. I no longer eat meals at regular hours. Late in the afternoon, I am surprised to discover that I’m still wearing my pyjamas. I am drinking too much alcohol. I don’t return phone calls from friends. I feel like I can’t go on.”

For all these reasons, it’s always good to get some sane and practical advice from experienced writers. So I’ll be following Harman with interest as he continues to live blog the writing of his book.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Gonna make me a home out in the wind

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Discipleship and christology

Today I drove to Canberra to give a talk at the School of Discipleship, an annual theological conference/retreat for Australian university students. While I was there, I heard a gripping and compelling lecture on Jonah and Second Isaiah by one of the plenary speakers, the Quaker scholar Daniel Smith-Christopher. My own talk was a more or less impromptu reflection on practices of discipleship as the context within which christology emerges in the New Testament: the Christian life is itself the basic christological text. (I was helped here by a recent reading of Terrence Tilley’s excellent new book, The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology As Reconciling Practice.)


I find theology to be especially enjoyable in a setting like this: an impromptu discussion leaves room for movement and discovery; it’s more playful and impressionistic than a formal lecture, more inventive and exploratory than a scholarly paper.

Anyhow, it did my heart good to see such an impressive gathering of theologians and university students. The event seems to offer a vibrant and theologically robust alternative to both the colourless conservatism and limp liberalism that one so often encounters in Australian church life. Best of all, each year the School of Discipleship creates its own themed range of beers: this year they had the Barmen Collection, including the Hans Asmussen Golden and the Karl Barth Porter (pictured).

And speaking of Barmen and discipleship, I’ve decided to set one of Bonhoeffer’s books for my undergraduate course on ecclesiology this semester. (After the lecture each week, a selection from the book will be the focus of a one-hour discussion, so that we’ve pretty much explored the whole book by the end of semester.) But I still haven’t decided between Discipleship (a richer, deeper work) and Life Together (shorter, more practical and accessible). Anyone able to persuade me one way or another?

Saturday, 11 July 2009

On real estate

For a moment I thought Augustine was referring to life in Sydney, when he wrote: “It grieves them more to own a bad house than a bad life, as if it were man’s greatest good to have everything good but himself” (City of God, 3.1).

Friday, 10 July 2009

Now on Twitter

Okay, I’ve decided to give it a try: you can now follow F&T on Twitter.

The psychology behind Twitter is, I believe, best summed up in James Joyce’s story, “A Painful Case” (published in Dubliners, 1914). The story’s character, Mr James Duffy, is described in this way:

“He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.”

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Marilyn McCord Adams and horrendous evils

by Kim Fabricius

Marilyn McCord Adams presented the most recent Theological Society Lecture in Swansea, on the theme “Horrendous Evils: A Theological Problem of Evil and Its Solution.” After the lecture, Kim gave the following vote of thanks.

When Nigel told me that Marilyn McCord Adams was coming to lecture I jumped for joy. Firstly, because we were going to get something we haven’t had here for a while – a proper English accent. And then I thought: what’s the topic? As a medievalist who knows that Occam’s razor is not a product from Gillette, perhaps she would do the sums on how many angels can fit on the head of a pin – or at least show us that this question is not the idiotic one it’s proverbially taken to be. Or as a member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and a critic of the Windsor Report, perhaps Professor Adams would lecture on human sexuality, or Anglican polity – with a title like, say, “A Dog Collar’s Breakfast”. But as one who devoured her books Horrendous Evils and Christ and Horrors, my money was on the theme of theodicy, and it turns out that I won that little bet with myself – and I dare say that none of us here tonight feels short-changed either!

Mind, I wondered if Professor Adams knew just how away she was playing, lecturing at the university where the inimitable D. Z. Phillips held a chair; knew that she would be speaking to some people who will remember Professor Phillips’ lecture on God and evil five-and-a-half years ago. Dewi had problems with what he called Professor Adams’ “theorising” about evil. So too does another Swansea boy named Rowan Williams. And, as an adopted Abertawean, I confess my own concern when the title of Professor Adams’ lecture was announced: talk of “a solution” to the problem of evil suggested that we might be in for an evening of theological hubris. I’m glad to say that’s not quite how it has turned out.

Professor Adams, firstly, fully acknowledges the irreducible horrendousness of horrendous evils, the meaninglessness as well as the pain. Second, she knows that a moral taxonomy is insufficient to account for the sheer intensity and scale of suffering, and she knows that the free-will defence fails because of its overblown account of human agency (not to mention its competitive account of divine and human freedom). Third, if Professor Adams speaks of the participatory suffering of God, it is, quite unlike the process theologians, only in connection with a robust two-natures Christology: it is the crucified and risen Jesus who is the horror-bearer and-defeater. Finally, Professor Adams consummates her theodicy with a robust faith in universal salvation, not because all must win prizes but because God is good and resourceful, the maker and re-maker of meaning, and because the penal options (as she puts it) of “liquidation or quarantine” are hardly a satisfactory quid pro quo for hell on earth. And all so tightly argued: Professor Adams is, after all, a philosopher in the analytical tradition.

Perhaps not all of us will now think, “Ah, QED!” But then Professor Adams would not want us to. On the contrary, as she says at the end of her book Horrendous Evils, she would fully expect to “have said something to offend almost everybody.” She has certainly said enough to disturb any pious complacency, and to rouse us to rethink our own intellectual, pastoral, and personal “solutions” to the problem of evil.

Finally this: I checked out the website of Professor Adams earlier today. It has a click-on for “Recipes”. It is empty at the moment, but she has certainly cooked us up a feast tonight. Thanks, Chef!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Four-year-old theology: Abraham and Isaac

My four-year-old daughter handed me one of those big children’s Bibles. You know the kind I mean: set in a dour Calvinist typeface and filled with big angry ink-drawn pictures of bearded unsmiling Americans, with stories punctuated by thunderous pronouncements from a brow-furrowed Baptist-preacher God. The kind of children’s Bible that has you scared to go to sleep, lest divine horrors invade your dreams or you are woken, like Samuel, by the summons of that shrill and unfamiliar Voice. (It’s no coincidence that today’s Hollywood directors – so obsessed with brutality, fear, and a kind of pure excessive violence – were brought up on this species of children’s Bible, together with its close relative, the hellfire gospel tract.)

Anyway, my daughter had opened it to the story of the binding of Isaac, and she asked me to read. The picture darkly portrayed Isaac bound to an altar, his father’s knife raised high above him, and in the foreground a white ram tangled in brambles. I had mixed feelings about the way the story would be presented, but eventually I went ahead and read it: God’s command to Abraham; Abraham’s all-too-willing obedience; the angel’s last-minute intervention; the provision of the ram; the final triumphant bloody act.

As I read all this, I wondered what my daughter must be thinking. When the story was over, she looked intently at the picture for a few silent moments, and then finally said (in a voice filled with sympathetic concern): “The poor goat.”

Monday, 6 July 2009

Now lay your faithless head down

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The trouble with kids today: a baptismal sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Text: Luke 18:15-30

“The trouble with kids today…” “When I was their age…” “Remember the days when…”

Get the picture? Old people talking about young people. And ever has it been so between one generation and the next. Old folk look back and see the time of their own youth if not as a golden age, then certainly as a better age than the world of today’s little creeps. We tend to view time from the then to the now as one of decline and fall. And young people, in turn, look at grown-ups and see people out of touch, who don’t understand them, who don’t understand anything. One word sums it up: we’re “boring”, and, if you’re parents, you’re “embarrassing” too. “The young think the old are fools, and the old know the young are fools” – that’s one George Chapman, writing four hundred years ago! Plus ça change, plus la même chose. “Whatever,” teenagers would add!

Me, I think this is a healthy state of affairs – at least for the young. Kids who don’t go through a period of viewing their elders with – well, the range is from condescending hilarity to lofty contempt – kids who don’t go through a stage of alienation and – yes, rebellion – they’re missing out on an essential part of the human experience. Indeed a younger generation that doesn’t set itself against their elders bodes ill for the time when they will become the older generation. For does not every generation of young people have something to be angry about and rebellious against? Has not every generation of parents left their children a world in a worse state than the one that was bequeathed to them by their parents? Do we not therefore warrant the accusation that we have screwed things up, and today, given the ominous state of the ecology, screwed things up big-time? The rebellion of the young, I’m suggesting, is, at heart, of moral significance, with its idealism, energy, and can-do optimism, in contrast to the quite immoral cynicism and complacency that, alas, inevitably seems to set in with thinning hair and sagging bottoms.

Which is why I am a worried man. No, not because my hair is thinning and my bottom has long since sagged and dropped – though that is true! No, I am worried by what I take to be a distinct lack of rebelliousness in today’s young people. Instead of repudiating and bucking the system, the system has sucked them in. They’ve become its biggest fans. The in-your-face self-expressiveness of young people, always an essential element of their identity – it strikes me as so conventional, conformist even, it smacks of the manufactured and manipulated. By whom? By us older people, of course! By the marketers, advertisers, and commercial providers. Young people have become, fundamentally, economic units, consumers, defined, indeed defining themselves, by their spending power.

(Are you aware, by the way, just how recent a phenomenon youth culture is? It only started after the Second World War, and only began really to kick in during the late-fifties and sixties. Pocket money and ever-increasing amounts of it – that is, available capital, purchasing power – and the rise of a distinct youth culture: they go hand in hand.)

Does the irony escape you? We lament that children today grow up too fast when in fact the whole project is being funded by adults! Check out the magazines kids read: they’re adolescent versions of the glossy world of fame, fashion, and ersatz beauty that obsesses and drives the twenty-to-fifty-somethings. And so the advertising industry quite rightly treats the purchasing public as such as children. For the flipside of children growing up too quickly is adults not growing up at all – we have become infantilised. That’s what money and ennui will do to you. But savvy kids should know better.

Which leads me to point out the interesting juxtaposition of passages in today’s New Testament reading. On the one hand, there is the story of Jesus blessing the children who come to him; on the other hand, there is the story of the rich man who walks away from Jesus. The juxtaposition is hardly arbitrary, and it’s one of contrast and critique.

Jesus is talking about how a person enters the kingdom, or reign, of God. Not how to get to “heaven”, but how to become part of the world God wants it to be, a world of peace, justice, and love, the world Jesus came to announce and inaugurate. How? Answer: by receiving it like a child. But what particular childlike quality does Jesus have in mind? Not, I can tell you, innocence or humility. We’re talking real kids here, not Teletubbies! There was nothing sentimental about Jesus’ view of children; Jesus was no Victorian romanticist. Indeed if the text suggests anything about children it is their weakness and helplessness – they have to be brought to Jesus. No money, no possessions, no position, no power – these are the things that make them role models for the kingdom. Interesting that. We’re always banging on about children needing adult role models, whereas our Lord thinks just the reverse: it’s adults who need children as role models.

And this interpretation – that it’s children’s pennilessness and powerlessness that make them role models for the kingdom – this interpretation is confirmed by the following story of the rich man. For here is the proverbial man who has everything – and observe that he is a good man too, he keeps the commandments, he is a pillar of the community, a member of the Rotary Club or the Round Table – yet so possessed is he by his possessions that he is quite unable to enter the kingdom of God, which demands dis-possession – demands weakness, not strength, demands helplessness, not control.

But as I have suggested, today’s kids would seem to have more in common with the rich man than the child. Just look at the possessions – from designer clothes, to mobile phones, to personal computers. And odd though it may at first sound, they’ve got the power to go with them – and it comes by via the tacit permission of their parents. Just think of the manifesto of the famous Spice Girls – Girl Power – and think of their target audience, the target audience, for that matter, of all girl and boy bands: ten-to-twelve-year-olds. And think of how parents, in oblivious obeisance to the market economy, and to keep the domestic peace, collude in turning their children into shoppers.

I know, I’m beginning to sound like the old man I began with: “The trouble with kids today …” I don’t mean to. Rather I’m simply trying to sketch out the reality of youth culture today, which strikes me as virtually the same as the virtual reality of adult culture today. Consumerism is the common theme: the commodification of everything that moves, the itching and scratching of restless, insatiable desire, the celebration of ever-expanding choice, choice, and more choice. Isn’t this our common reality? It is little Matthew’s reality too.

HOWEVER: whenever we baptise a child in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, baptise him/her into Christ, we initiate him/her into a different reality, an alternative reality, a counter-cultural reality we call the church. At least that’s the theory. Because you and I both know that, in practice, on the whole, Christians are as mesmerised as non-Christians by the idol of consumerism.

NEVERTHELESS: here you are, and here a few of us come, week by week, to see and hear the church “fess up”: to laugh at the pretensions of consumer capitalism’s ridiculous little gods, to expose the lies the world lives by, to tell it like it is to each other in love, even when it hurts, and to practice the quaint and lost arts of forgiveness and peacemaking when violence and vengeance make all the running with the good guys and bad guys alike. And there is no bouncer at the door. All are welcome here without distinction – saints and sinners, losers and winners, the poor and the wealthy, the ugly and the beautiful, the queer and the supposedly normal. Because here the good news of God’s foolish, prodigal, disarming love is proclaimed, as we try to keep alive the rumour of an altogether different God from the one you will find anywhere else, the God who passes judgement on wealth and power, valorises the vulnerable, and calls us into a community of belonging, need, and care.

And so today we not only baptise little Matthew, we also hold him up as the very embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we want to enter the kingdom of God, we will get in line behind him.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

One more excerpt: blogging as a reading-together

Here’s one more brief excerpt from my paper on blogging – this is from a section entitled “Blogging as a Technology of the Self.”

Blogging is not only a new technology of writing; it’s also a new way of reading. In Christian antiquity, reading was a social activity, not a wholly private one. The earliest recorded incident of silent reading is found in Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine relates with astonishment Ambrose’s habit of reading in silence, a practice he had never seen before: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”


Centuries later, reading as an oral and auditory social practice still remained the norm. Medieval writers “assumed that their readers would hear rather than simply see the text,” and their texts “repeatedly call upon the audience to ‘lend ears’ to a tale.” Only in the tenth century did reading practices start to become typically silent and solitary; by the modern period, the internalised nature of reading has become entirely self-evident. So that a literary critic like Harold Bloom can now simply define reading as the love of solitude; while George Steiner can argue that the busy sociality of modern life is destroying authentic reading, since “serious reading excludes even one’s intimates.”

In the world of Web 2.0, the ideal of the solitary reader is waning fast. Blogging is a kind of reading-together. It is the formation of a new kind of community of reading. No longer is reading an activity reserved for the private study, that carefully crafted space where thought is cultivated under conditions of silence, leisure, economic privilege. To read a blog is to participate in a collective reading process: on any given day, we all read the same post, the same thread of comments and responses. Such reading is far removed from solitude: the reading is understood primarily as a stimulus to conversation, criticism, discussion. Here, reading is not so much an end in itself as the means to a particular form of community. The very act of reading thus becomes a collective project.

Although I don’t share George Steiner’s cultural pessimism or his investment in the Victorian ideal of leisurely private reading, I think he showed remarkable insight when, as early as 1972, he noted the decline of solitary reading. Young people today, he observed, “read against a musical background or in company. Almost instinctively, they resent the solipsism … implicit in the classic act of reading. They wish to shut no one out from the empathic tide of their consciousness.” All this in 1972: one almost feels as though he was prophesying the existence of blogs!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse

Here’s an excerpt from my paper last night on “blogging as theological discourse”. I’m thinking of tidying the paper up and submitting it to a journal – I don’t suppose anyone knows of a journal that would be interested in this kind of thing? Perhaps a journal on theology and culture?

In a well-known book, we find a whole raft of arguments about the dangers of this new technology. The new technology will change the way we understand truth; it will change the way we use language; it will erode our memories and our relationships; it will take the “soul” out of language, and turn language into a mere “image”, a deceitful apparition of true understanding. In short, this new technology is not merely a useful invention: it is something that threatens the very fabric of our humanity. The text I am referring to is, of course, not a book about the internet: it is Plato’s Phaedrus, written in the fourth century BCE, warning against the transition from an oral culture to a culture of writing. Poised between two worlds, Plato perceived that literacy was not merely a convenient new technology, but it was a practice that would usher in a new way of being-in-the-world. Our very humanness would change under the impact of this technology.

Plato’s insight has been confirmed by modern historical studies of the cultural transitions from orality to literacy, from writing to print, and from print to the mass production of books. Walter Ong’s 1982 work on Orality and Literacy argued for the unique power of linguistic technologies in shaping the human self. “More than any other single invention,” he argued, “writing has transformed the human self.” Writing must be understood here as a technology, as a practice which structures the way we relate to the world and to each other. Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously announced that “the medium is the message”. A medium like text or television functions, he argued, not as a neutral channel through which ideas are transmitted, but as an “extension” of our humanness. The development of a new medium has the most profound and far-reaching effects on the structure of human consciousness and the organisation of human societies.

In oral cultures, the word is an occurrence in the present between one living person and another; the spoken word occurs always within a broader personal context. But writing is a solitary practice, and the written word appears simply in the context of other words. In the written word – as Plato perceived – there is no flexibility, no to and fro between speaker and listener, no dialogical process of clarification, amendment and revision. In written culture, then, literary production is a profoundly personal activity. And prior to the printing press, there was no real distinction between private and public. A work is written and the manuscript is copied by hand in order to be circulated to a small number of people, people within the writer’s own “private” world. With the invention of the printing press, however, literary production becomes a “public” act. James O’Donnell notes that it was Thomas More, early in the sixteenth century, who first used the English word “publish” to describe his literary activity. The division between private and public was introduced by the printing press; for the first time, one could now write for strangers, for an anonymous public audience. It is here that “the ‘author’ was born”. The fixity and permanence of the printed word produce ideals of “verbal perfectability, style, and the idea of ownership”.

Indeed, the modern idea of the author emerges in a clear form only in the works of the seventeenth-century writer John Milton. Milton’s poetic and prose works are pervaded by a preoccupation with authorship, with the writer’s spiritual ownership of his literary productions. He signs his title pages “The Author John Milton”; he includes frequent autobiographical digressions, narrating his own development as an author; he reflects critically on the various genres in which he writes; he is anxious about relation between his own originality and the literary citation of authorities. Here, it is clear that print culture – the capacity to write for an anonymous public – produces a new relation to oneself, to language, to society and tradition.

It’s interesting to note that in the Web 2.0 environment, the circulation of one’s writing is not usually described as “publishing”, but as “posting”. There is a curious historical reversal here: for now the private/public distinction, created by the printing press, begins again to vanish. With technologies like blogs, Facebook and Twitter, my “private” thoughts are immediately manifest, immediately “publicly” available. The word is not carefully crafted into a fixed, perfected form; it is plastic, flexible, dialogical. Here, the word is uttered not simply within the context of other authorial words, but in the lived context of an ever-changing interactive community.

Note: There are also some posts on my presentation here and here. And thanks to everyone for the reading tips last week, which were a great help!

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