Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Best TV series of 2009

OK, here’s my pick of the year’s best 10 TV series. I should emphasise that the #1 show is light years ahead of the rest…

1. Mad Men, season 3 (AMC)
2. True Blood, season 2 (HBO)
3. Flight of the Conchords, season 2 (HBO)
4. In Treatment, season 2 (HBO)
5. Little Dorrit (BBC)
6. Glee (Fox)
7. The Librarians, season 2 (ABC)
8. Mumbai Calling (BBC)
9. United States of Tara (Showtime)
10. East West 101, season 2 (SBS) – full disclosure, I haven't actually seen this season yet, but it's an awesome show. I'm sure it will deserve a place in the list.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Idiot: a Christmas sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Once again (for the twenty-eighth time), I have read, studied and prayed the Christmas stories so that I could preach to you this morning. Here’s the deal for 2009.

Matthew’s Gospel. Written by a Jew, it focuses on Joseph, who must do a lot of sleeping because, like his coat-of-many-colours namesake, he does a lot of dreaming. Babylonian sages follow a star to Jerusalem, and then start asking questions about a neonatal king. Now when you consider (a) that the Jews didn’t like Babylonians, their one-time conquerors, and (b) that the Jews already had a king, who wouldn’t take kindly to a rival – well, nosing around for a successor to the throne was actually a pretty dumb thing for wise guys to do. And sure enough, the hateful Herod calls for his hit men and, all swords slashing, children die and mothers weep. A shambles.

Then there is Luke’s Gospel. Written by a Gentile, and narrated with a quite orchestral elegance, it focuses on Mary, who, like Joan Baez, is a feisty singer of protest songs. Emperor Augustus takes a census – to collect taxes, to invest in weapons, to oil his war machine – while august angels put on a lightshow and do an open-air gig for peace – for yokels. Then a pious old bloke named Simeon praises the Lord – but prophesies maternal grief; and an old Temple groupie named Anna cries, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at least!” Not much youth work going on in Jerusalem, is there?

Finally, John’s Gospel. At once very Jewish and very Greek, with one heck of an overture, announcing great themes – light and darkness, life and truth, grace and glory – and focussing on the Logos, “the Word”, with tightly controlled verses rising to a crescendo: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Scholars love it. But “us” didn’t get it: the world didn’t get it, the Jews didn’t get it, nobody got it, really, except for a handful of the born-again. A handful? That’s it?

So I’ve read, marked, and inwardly digested the old stories, and I’ve come to a conclusion. To be honest, it’s a conclusion I reached long ago, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with you, because it’s not the kind of thing that ministers usually tell their congregations. But, hey, it’s Christmas, so let’s throw caution to the cold winds. My conclusion is this: God is an idiot. An absolute idiot. I mean of all the idiotic things – Christmas. The only thing I’ll give God is consistency. Look at the record: the Lord’s got form – he’s spent the whole of history acting like an idiot. No one in his right mind would do the things that God has done to redeem the world. Yep, God is an idiot.

Here is some homework for you. Later today (if you’re still sober), take a look at the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, King Jimmy’s “begats”, the family tree of Jesus. I suspect you’d expect to find a “now let us praise famous men” kind of litany. Not a bit of it. There are three sections. The first section is all about people obsessed with sex. The second section is all about people who are pathologically violent. In the third section things get better – or do they? It’s hard to tell, because most of the people listed cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament, and, to be frank, it looks like Matthew is making it up as he goes along. So meet the ancestors: fornicators, killers, and impostors. Nice one, God.

Or just take a good look at the world (though for this exercise it would help to be drunk). God made it – “in the beginning”. A “good” start. Sure, because God is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving. But now what have we got? The German philosopher Hegel called it a “slaughter-bench”. Was he wrong? What a mess. Thanks a lot, God. Of course clever philosophers and theologians have come up with all kinds of ingenious explanations that pass the buck to the laws of nature, or to the devil, or to sinners like you and me (three cheers for free will!), which lets God, the inscrutable old So-and-So, off the hook. I don’t buy it. He’s the creator of the universe, for heaven’s sake, and we get cancer, concentration camps – and Simon Cowell? If I were God, I promise you, I’d have made a better job of it. Wouldn’t you? What would you call the head of a construction company called Cosmos PLC, whose card says “Welcome to My World” – this world? You’d call him an idiot, that’s what you’d call him. Imagine God as a Project Manager on The Apprentice: Sir Alan Sugar points his menacing digit: “You’re fired!”

Okay, granted, God comes to fix the broken world. But how does he do it? To answer that question I would have to go on to talk about Good Friday and the crucifixion, and people will say, hey, it’s Christmas, we’re celebrating a birth, not commemorating a death, give the kids a break, give the cross a rest. Sorry, but that’s just what we can’t do. As Martin Luther saw with crystal clarity, the crib and the cross are cut from the same wood. Hence all the foreboding in Luke’s Christmas stories. Hence the shadow that falls over Matthew’s Nativity events. And the “we have seen his glory” in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:14) – the “glory” of Jesus, for John, is, above all, the glory of – (oops) the cross! Good Friday for all three evangelists is written into Christmas Day. “Hark! The herald-angels sing” is the overture for the Passion. Mark is on the ball: in his gospel he omits the birth of Jesus altogether and pretty much cuts to the chase down the Via Dolorosa.

So here, in sum, is God’s plan for a broken world: God sends his Son, born of Mary, to fix it, and, missed by Herod, crucified by Pontius Pilate, we fix him. Love: can’t live without it, but can’t live with it either – and when we meet Love, we murder him. And to the naked eye, the world rolls on pretty much as the same old same old, as the venal reign, the greedy prosper, and the weak get shafted. And we think: Where was Plan B? No, this is not the way we would do things if we were God. God doesn’t do multi-tasking. God is a loser and failure. God is an idiot.

So how do I conclude? As ever, with the seraph, like this: “I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all people. This very day in David’s town your Saviour is born – Christ the Lord!” The movers and shakers – they’re over-rated. I’ll stick with the Idiot, love the Idiot, and trust the Idiot, thanking God for making me – us – idiots too. Jesus said, “Blessed are the idiots!” Well, no, he didn’t – but he might have, because it’s true. So rejoice!

That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
(John Betjeman)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Best albums of 2009

Here's my pick of the year's 20 best albums:

1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
2. jj, jj N°2
3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
4. Iron & Wine, Around the Well
5. M. Ward, Hold Time
6. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
7. Lisa Mitchell, Wonder
8. The Mountain Goats, Life of the World to Come
9. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
10. Girls, Album
11. Dan Deacon, Bromst
12. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
13. Florence and the Machine, Lungs
14. Fever Ray, Fever Ray
15. Antony & the Johnsons, The Crying Light
16. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
17. Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Twice Born Men
18. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches
19. Ben Harper, White Lies for Dark Times
20. YACHT, See Mystery Lights

Most theologically interesting albums: M. Ward, Hold Time; and The Mountain Goats, Life of the World to Come (in this latter album, each song is based on a Bible verse)
Best live album: Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom
Best covers album: Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart
Best debut album: jj, jj N°2
Best compilation: Dark Was the Night
Best children’s album: Butterflyfish, Ladybug
Most disappointing album: Bob Dylan, Together through Life

Best songs of 2009

Here's my pick of the 20 best songs of the year, with a limit of one song per artist (otherwise half the list would be Animal Collective…).

1. Animal Collective, “My Girls” (Just as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was the theme song of the 60s, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the theme song of the 90s, so “My Girls” could serve as the theme of the noughties: "I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls...")
2. jj, “Things Will Never Be the Same Again”
3. The Mountain Goats, “Psalm 40:2”
4. Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks”
5. Girls, “Lust for Life”
6. The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”
7. Iron & Wine, “Kingdom of the Animals”
8. Lisa Mitchell, “Valium”
9. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over”
10. Fever Ray, “If I Had a Heart”
11. My Chemical Romance, “Desolation Row”
12. Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa”
13. Dan Deacon, “Snookered”
14. M. Ward, “Shangri-La”
15. The Antlers, “Kettering”
16. Sweet Billy Pilgrim, “Kalypso”
17. The Flaming Lips, “Silver Trembling Hands”
18. The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You”
19. Mewithoutyou, “Allah, Allah, Allah”
20. YACHT, “Psychic City”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Best theology books of 2009

Over the next week I’ll post some roundups of the year’s highlights. Here’s my selection of the best (mainly theological) books of 2009:

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Theology essay competition and PhD stipends

It's not always easy to make an honest living from theology. So here are two notable opportunities for young theologians in the coming year:

Essay competition in honour of Polkinghorne

In 2010 the International Society for Science and Religion will be celebrating the 80th birthday of its founding President, John Polkinghorne. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, the ISSR is offering three substantial prizes to students or younger academics (not yet in a tenured post) for an essay on a major theme of Polkinghorne’s work (e.g. divine action, chaos theory, eschatology, natural theology, information, epistemology, etc). The prizes are very lucrative:

1st prize: £10,000
2nd prize: £5,000
3rd prize: £2,000

For further details, see the ISSR website.

Two PhD stipends in theology, University of Agder

LeRon Shults also announces that his university in Norway will be providing two new PhD stipends for theology students. Recipients of the stipend will receive a salary of about US$52,000 per year over three years, as well as travel funds, etc. LeRon has more details at his blog.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Daniel Pekarske, Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Essays

Karl Rahner was one of modern theology's most prolific and accomplished essayists. He was a consummate master of the genre, using essays to develop unsystematic sketches, suggestive hints, paths for future exploration. His great essay collection, Theological Investigations, spans 23 volumes and covers innumerable theological topics.

Unfortunately, the arrangement of these essays is often more or less arbitrary, making it difficult to track down Rahner's writing on a particular theme. So I've often made use of Daniel Pekarske's marvellous 659-page reference work, Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations 1-23 (Marquette University Press 2002) – a true labour of love, in which Pekarske provides a concise, informative overview of each essay, together with a detailed index.

So I was delighted to see that Pekarske has now released the sequel: Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Unserialized Essays (Marquette University Press 2009), 565 pp. In this volume, Pekarske provides abstracts of numerous essays that didn't make it into the Theological Investigations. As you'd expect, the essays here represent the extraordinary breadth of Rahner's interests – there are essays on Marxism and the economy, Concilium and renewal, prayer and silence, freedom and hominisation. As in the previous volume, Pekarske provides a very brief abstract of each essay, followed by a list of main keywords, then a list of subsidiary topics (these are often the most interesting bits), and finally a more detailed precis of the essay's argument.

Students of modern theology are indebted to Pekarske for his selfless and painstaking labours. With these unique reference works, the vast library of Rahner's essays becomes less daunting and much more accessible.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Richard Swinburne proves the resurrection

A conversation yesterday reminded me of Richard Swinburne's 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that "it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead" (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probably of God's existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn't exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn't).
  3. The evidence for God's existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ's resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.
It's almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn't); the probability that this cheese is camembert is also one in two (since it's either camembert or it isn't); and so on...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Reggae as ethics: Rastafari theology from Garvey to Marley

I've been on a Bob Marley kick lately, so this book caught my eye: Noel Leo Erskine, From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida 2005). It's a fascinating and colourful exploration of the history and theology of the Rastas. In Erskine's analysis, the whole Rastafarian theology boils down to this: "God is an African" (p. 158) – so that "the central question the Rastas pose for us is where we stand in relation to Africa" (p. 5).

Erskine is himself a Jamaican-born theologian; he grew up in the village where Rastafari originated, and he later pastored a Baptist church in Jamaica. In the 1960s, he developed a close personal connection with a Rastafarian community. They discussed their views with him and allowed him to participate in their "reasonings" (informal theological discussions, accompanied by cannabis smoking) – so this book is written out of rich experience and a deep personal sympathy with the Rastafarian movement.

The Rastas see a direct relation between the Old Testament narratives and the history of the Jamaican people. "The Bible was written by black people about black people" (p. 67). Black Jamaicans are the true Israelites; "the exodus will be a return to Ethiopia, the Promised Land" (p. 38).

At the heart of this exodus-theology is the concept of Babylon. Babylon is the ultimate evil. It is that enslaving, anti-God system – the world-system that produces colonialism, capitalism, social oppression, and all manner of injustice. "Babylon" is no mere metaphor: it is experienced as a daily reality, bearing down on the Jamaican people. For the Rastas, its clearest personification is in the police: the police "were the living proof that Babylon was alive, active and waiting for any opportunity" to oppress (p. 74). Rastas also tend to avoid the church on account of its complicity with Babylon: "one steps out of the church into the state and out of the state into the church without knowing the difference" (p. 85).

This understanding of Babylon also helps to make sense of the theological significance of ganja (cannabis) smoking among Rastas. Smoking frees the mind from the "trickery" of Babylon, peeling back the veil to expose the sinister guile of the Babylonian world-system. As one Rasta puts it: "Before I start to smoke herb, the world was just good and pleasant to me.... But from I start to herb now, I start to read between the lines. Is like wool was removed from before my eyes.... The government knows from a man start smoke herb he be aware of some things. That is when he start come off the brainwash, when he start to smoke the herb. That's why them is against the herb so much" (p. 99).

Similarly, wearing dreadlocks – the single most important and dramatic identity-marker of the Rastas – signifies a rejection of the Babylonian system, a refusal to accede to the demands of Babylon. For the Rastas (p. 108), "not those who grow their hair long but those who trim it off are required to explain their actions"! In the same way, their commitment to vegetarianism and organic living finds its theological basis in this rejection of Babylon, the refusal to be assimilated into the world's oppressive system.

The power of Babylon is not, however, resisted by any Rastafarian ethic. Rather, the Rastas' whole emphasis is on escape from Babylon, sheer exodus. In the mean time, they direct "invective against the forces of oppression" (p. 81). "Babylon is evil, and the task of the Rasta is not to attempt to transform Babylon but to flee Babylon for Ethiopia" (p. 39). Indeed, for the Rastas, ethics is strictly unnecessary – they have reggae music instead!

Erskine is gently critical of the Rastas on this score, since they seem to have missed the opportunity of developing their own liberative praxis. They are stuck with "an imbalance between word and activity" (p. 43), so that they fail to seek widespread social transformation. From the perspective of liberation theology, I suppose this is a fair critique – but it fails to take seriously enough the more profound lesson of the Rastas (which is also a lesson of the Old Testament), namely, that language itself is already "action". Language is work, praxis, liberation. There is no transformation more radical than a transformation of discourse. For the people of Israel, God's very being is revealed as a liberating event of language – the divine Word-event.

Erskine rightly perceives the significance of the Rastas' linguistic innovation, their "dread talk". He observes: "With the creation of their own language, Rastas have not only protested against the education offered them through the schools ... but also have seized the power of definition" (p. 167). If we follow through on this insight, we might also ask whether Rastafari – with its tremendous attentiveness to the work of discourse – poses some critical questions to liberation theology, and indeed to any theology that allows for an easy division between the categories of theoria and praxis.

If speech is a fundamental mode of human action, then – surprisingly – it makes a good deal of sense for the Rastas to cultivate reggae in place of ethics. The more seriously we appreciate the Rastas' preoccupation with language, the more we might wonder if their project is even more ambitious than any liberation theology: they are turning the world upside down, one syllable at a time. As Erskine very aptly notes: "It may seem simplistic for Rastas to believe that the simple act of singing will threaten the system of Babylon sufficiently to effect transformation, but they observe that it was simply walking around the walls of Jericho and chanting that brought the wall down" (p. 175). It's in the song itself that Jah is alive, active, and on the move.

Theology of money

The AUFS crew have commenced their next book event, this time focusing on Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money. Here are the posts so far:

1. Power
2. The end of modernity
3. Ecology of money
4. Politics of money
5. Theology of money

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Sydney symposium with Sarah Coakley

On 12-13 July 2010, I'll be holding a symposium here in Sydney entitled "Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology". The event will open with a public lecture by Sarah Coakley, followed by two days of papers and intensive discussion. Coakley is one of the most exciting and creative figures in contemporary theology, and this will be a time of serious discussion about the future of systematic theology, using her work as a resource and stimulus.

I'll soon be creating a webpage for the event. But in the meantime, please feel free to contact me if you're interested in participating. I'm especially keen to gather papers that engage theologically with different aspects of Coakley's work (e.g. patristics, contemplative prayer, feminism, gender, desire, Trinity, and so forth).

If you're interested in learning more about Coakley's theological project, you should check out the extended interview in Rupert Shortt's book, God's Advocates (you can read the whole chapter on Google Books).

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Christians enjoy killing

OK, the world is filled with bad theology. But you'll seldom come across anything as bad as this – in a 2005 essay entitled "Onward Christian Soldiers", Gene Edward Veith asks the question: "Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?"

He replies that war is "fun" since we have a "primal love of war". There is "a pleasure in battle", an "excitement, exhilaration, and a fierce joy that go along with combat". We should "appreciate our troops' facility in fulfilling their purpose, namely, killing the enemy." Christians with a military vocation should thus "go forward with joy"; quoting Luther, Veith counsels Christian soldiers to "smite [their enemies] with a confident and untroubled spirit." And so his remarkable theological conclusion: "As in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one's work."

A friend came by my office today and read me this passage aloud. I burst out laughing, thinking for a moment that it was a parody. But alas, I was mistaken. Which just goes to show that the test of Very Bad Theology is whether it's beyond parody.

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