Friday, 31 December 2010

Some 2010 highlights

OK folks, time for a round-up of some of the highlights of 2010:

Best albums

1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – I admit it, this album is obscene, misogynistic, aggressive (occasionally murderous), and generally morally depraved. It’s outrageously scandalous and hilariously funny in equal measure. It’s also a tour de force: a work of breathtaking musical intensity and lyrical inventiveness, with brilliant rhymes of Dylanesque proportions. Probably one of the best pop albums I’ve ever heard.
2. Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9)
3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
4. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
5. The National, High Violet
6. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me

Best films

1. The Social Network
2. A Prophet
3. The King’s Speech
4. Toy Story 3
5. Monsters
6. Chico and Rita

* Worst trends: 3D movies. (Honestly, two-dimensional black and white is far more immersive.)
** Most overrated: Inception. (I enjoyed it on the whole. But if you want a film that convincingly explores the texture of dreaming, see Waking Life; and if you want a film that compelling explores the relation between perception and reality, see Blowup.)

Best TV shows

American: Mad Men, Season 4 (Not as good as the first three seasons, but it's still the best show on television.)
British: Rev
Australian: Rake

Best books

Theology – John Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Eerdmans); and Angel F. Mendez Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Wiley-Blackwell)

Biography – Avril Pyman, Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da Vinci (Continuum)

Translations – Johannes Heckel Lex Charitatis: A Juristic Disquisition on Law in the Theology of Martin Luther (Eerdmans); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Bonhoeffer Works Volume 8) (Fortress)

Political philosophy – Eric Nelsen, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard UP)

Memoir – Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans)

Literary criticism – Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton UP); and G. Douglas Atkins, T. S. Eliot and the Essay (Baylor UP)

Literature – I didn't read much new fiction this year, since I’ve been devoting myself to Latin American fiction. So my personal highlight of the year was reading (nearly) all the works of Roberto Bolaño – his big novel 2666 is a masterpiece, an epic of despair, that challenges the whole genre of the novel, and The Savage Detectives is also a stunning novel. Another highlight for me has been the huge new edition of the The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard.

Addendum: Jason's post reminds me that I forgot to mention Ernst Käsemann, On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene: Unpublished Lectures and Sermons (Eerdmans) – definitely one of the year's publishing highlights.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas clerihews

by Kim Fabricius

Zech
Cries, “A child? Bloody heck!”
Famous last words he speaks –
For forty weeks.

Liz
Was in such a tizz
At her lump
That it jumped.

Gabe
said, “Hey, babe,
Just say ‘No’
No mo.”

Mary
For her first was chaste – very.
“But, please,” she pleaded, “Not ergo
Semper virgo.”

Joe
Was sooo
Gutted when he heard the news
That he tanked up on turps till he snoozed.

Emperor Augustus
Banned coitus interruptus
To make his census
Immensus.

Keepers of sheep
Were awakened from sleep
To hear seraphim singing of hope.
(It was the dope.)

Herod the Great
Was a right reprobate
Who liked bonking and butchering babies.
He got his comeuppance by dying of scabies.

The magi,
Who didn’t know Micah from Haggai,
Didn’t need the Good Book –
They just looked.

Simeon and Anna,
Eighty-odd, yelled, “Hosanna!”
“Christmas is for kids” we are told.
No! It’s for the old!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Art for advent: Banksy's crucifix

Now here's a piece of art worth pondering this Christmas – a crucifix by the British graffiti artist Banksy (h/t Stephen Downey):


Though for a slightly different perspective on the Christmas mythology, see Richard's thoughtful post on lying about Santa. And if you want to know whether Santa Claus appears in the Bible, look no further than this annotated Bible.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas sermon: A PowerlessPoint Presentation

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Okay, let’s put an end to any puzzlement, though I suspect you’ve already got the point: this is my visual aid for Christmas – me! Not my usual Sunday best – the nice suit, silk tie, polished shoes, and distinguished Genevan preaching gown. No, today, you get me dressing down – you get a jumper, jeans, and a pair of trainers. Sorry it’s not PowerPoint, but I’m suspicious of any technology that uses “bullets” to preach the Prince of Peace. So you’ll have to do with me – and my thesis that Christmas itself is a PowerlessPoint presentation of God dressing down – which is the way he dresses up.

The birth of a baby is, after all, a commonplace, not a spectacular. And with Jesus himself we celebrate the birth of a human, not a superhuman. Indeed that, precisely, is the message of Christmas: God is human. And not just partly, or contingently, or temporarily human, as if somewhere behind the God we see revealed at Christmas there is a god who is not human, some kind of divine essence or absolute, or even an inhuman deity, though there are plenty of such pop idols about, like Mammon the god of the banks and the market, or Mars the god of war and terror, or Venus the goddess of health and beauty. No, the humanity of God not only expresses, it actually defines, constitutes, the very being of God all the way down and from eternity to eternity. God is not only human, there is no non-human in God.

Now that’s the point, but it’s not the whole point. God is human, but what kind of human is God? That’s where Jesus comes in. God is not only human, God is this human. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, has a name, his name is Jesus, and Jesus is the kind of person God is, Jesus is the person God is, here as a baby born in a stable, later as a man killed on a cross. (As John Donne said, Christmas and Good Friday are morning and evening of the same day.) Which is not the way a God who is omnipotent is supposed to behave. A PowerlessPoint presentation of divine dressing down indeed! A God, you might say, with no sense of occasion. Check it out.

At his baptism Jesus shows up to be baptised by John – and John exclaims, “No way! I need to be baptised by you!” Jesus appears not as a holy big shot, no, he identifies himself with the usual suspects and sinners. No sense of occasion.

Yes, his baptism turns out to be a royal occasion: Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit, as the Messiah. But what’s the next thing this messiah does? Go to a royal banquet of an inaugural ceremony with the great and the good? No, he heads for the desert, to sweat and starve for forty days – and keep company with the devil. No sense of occasion.

Then Jesus returns to civilization and begins to preach. He takes a service in Nazareth, his hometown. Preaches his socks off, to a rapturous reception. Not! No, he antagonises the congregation by reminding his neighbours of Bible stories where God plays away, ministering to foreigners, even enemies, rather than to local, patriotic folk. The Cohens, the Goldbergs, and the Finkelsteins are not pleased with the lad. They run him out of town. No feeling for his audience. No sense of occasion.

Then Jesus broadens his appeal. He preaches on a hillside to a crowd. What do crowds want to hear from a messiah? Promises of wealth, strength, happiness, and national security, of course. What does Jesus tell them? Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mournful, and the nonviolent. And, in this programmatic PowerlessPoint presentation, no big screen for those at the back. No sense of occasion.

Then there are the healings. Now that’s the way to impress the punters and get the word around – perform some sensational miracles. Except that Jesus is always telling his patients to keep schtum, and refusing to perform for the professionals who come to check him out for quality control. No stage presence. No sense of occasion.

Oh, and how do messiahs succeed? Keep your friends in the loop; make strategic alliances. Instead, Jesus dumbfounds his disciples – they constantly misunderstand him and even object to his teaching – and he alienates the clergy with his confrontational style. No sense of occasion … after occasion … after occasion.

Finally, the climax of his ministry, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the capital city. Here he will finally convince his friends and defeat his foes. So he goes to work. At the last supper he demonstrates what lordship is like. How? – like a slave he washes the disciples’ feet. And before the high priest and the Roman governor he vindicates his cause. How? – he is silent before the one and lippy before the other. No sense of occasion. This time, big time. Caiaphas, however, has a sense of occasion: he dramatically rends his garment. And Pilate has a sense of occasion: he publicly washes his hands. And the people have a sense of occasion (like Herod, they know what to do when love incarnate appears): “Kill him!” they cry. But Jesus has no sense of occasion: his idea of a grand exit is hanging from a gibbet beside a rubbish tip.

But then what else from a God whose idea of a grand entry is a Nappy Christmas (Godfrey Rust), pulled from the womb of a peasant in the palace of a stable, surrounded by an entourage of cattle and yokels, and sleeping in the four-poster bed of a feeding trough? People think they have an idea of what God is like, and they would recognise him when he appears – awesome, stunning, prodigious (a kind of cross between the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the four judges on X Factor). They don’t. They didn’t. He isn’t.

Christmas: God’s PowerlessPoint presentation, God’s dressing down, God’s self-demonstration that he has no sense of occasion, that God is God in a messy birth (and, later, in a messier death). And there, I think, is the true wonder of Christmas: the miraculous not in some supernatural phenomenon but in the striking ordinariness of the neonatal (and the finally fatal). And there also is the real hope of Christmas: things are not as they seem; and, more, things are not as they have to be, they can be altogether otherwise. Is a new world possible? Absolutely, because a new world came. And because a new world came, a new world is coming.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Witness: a short story

The Revelation took place on a Sunday, the evening of February 28, 1983. The sky was bright and clear that Sabbath night – almost supernaturally clear, as one TV weatherman remarked the following day, with scarcely a cloud in sight anywhere across the vast unbounded skies of the fifty states of America.

The conditions could hardly have been better for divine revelation. The Moral Majority was gaining momentum under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, a Republican was in the White House, the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a groundbreaking resolution on the vocation of women as homemakers, James Dobson had published Dare to Discipline, the godless philosopher Ayn Rand had died, the AIDS epidemic was judging the evil of homosexuals, and the Middle East was bracing itself to fulfil biblical prophecy on the plains of Armageddon. In spite of these obvious fruits of righteousness, however, there were also many signs of wickedness in the earth. In fact, by February 1983 the stench of the ungodly had reached up to heaven; the recent release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was, to those with ears to hear, a proof that the end was definitely at hand.

For many years now the evangelical lobby – galvanised by the alarming rise of secular humanism, evolutionism, atheism and condom distribution, and by the decline of prayer in schools and ladies' baking groups – had carried out a tireless campaign for a decisive public manifestation of the power of the Almighty. At first the Lord of Hosts stood by his time-honoured policy of mysterious concealment, encouraging his church to take responsibility for his existence by means of apologetic arguments and the publication of small illustrated gospel tracts. But the Christian Right used its growing power and influence to continue the theological lobby until, wearied by their cries, their prophetic protests and their Saturday morning prayer breakfasts, the Rock of Ages resigned himself to the exhausting prospect of one last display of his eternally blessed divine effulgence. This would be the Revelation to end all revelations, the full and final unveiling of the secret hidden since the foundation of the world; a Revelation to shut the mouths of the ungodly and silence the relentless clamour of evangelical prayer meetings. The church had demanded a sign: they would get more than they had bargained for. The eyes of all the nation would be dazzled; once more the hearts of men would be lost in wonder, love and praise.

And so it was that, at 10.32 pm Eastern Time, the Ancient of Days rent the heavens, rolled up the sky like a scroll, pausing a moment for dramatic effect while the archangel sounded three pure notes on her heavenly trombone, and then bathed the entire American landscape in the pure unreflected light of eternal refulgence. It was a radiance to blacken the sun and blind the watching stars. It was, in a word, an irrefutable demonstration of the existence and power of Him Who Made Heaven and Earth.

There was only one problem. Nobody knows for certain whether it was due to an embarrassing oversight in heaven's event management, or to the cunning machinations of the Prince of Darkness, or to some deeper motive hidden within the divine counsel itself. Whatever the reason, it so happened that February 28, 1983, the Night of Nights and the turning point of the ages, was also the date of the long-anticipated television finale of M*A*S*H. The epic three-hour episode was broadcast at 7.30 pm across the United States; it was the most watched broadcast of American television history. State and federal police statistics show that no crimes were committed on that night; nor for that matter would any criminals have been apprehended, since the police, too, had taken up their positions around television sets at every police station in the country. Nine months later, on November 28, maternity wards throughout the nation’s hospitals fell eerily silent; it is said that not a single child was born that day, since none were conceived nine months earlier. As though no one had made love on the night of February 28; as though even the basic bodily drives had been circumvented by the M*A*S*H finale.

On that divinely appointed night, the country’s population had gathered one and all around their television sets, breathless with anticipation to see if Hawkeye would recover from his mental breakdown, to see if BJ would get his longed-for discharge, to see if Colonel Potter would get the tank removed safely from the camp latrines, to see if Father Mulcahy would recover from his shocking accident, to see if Max Klinger would marry Soon-Lee and help her find her parents, to see if Charles Emerson Winchester III would get the job in Boston and if Margaret Houlihan would return to America or take up a position abroad; in short, to see the end of the Korean War – an event the whole world had been dreading now for eleven consecutive television seasons.

So it was that, at the exact moment that the glory of the Celestial Potentate filled the skies, viewers in California were tuning into the opening theme song, while in New York the credits had just begun to roll. Some later claimed to have seen a curious flash outside, though they thought nothing of it at the time. Others heard the sound of the archangel’s trump, though it was assumed to be part of the show’s dramatic background music. (In Colorado Springs, the trombone split the sky during the poignant scene where Major Winchester conducts the captured Chinese musicians in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A; the three heavenly notes neatly and harmonically punctuated the lyrical melody of the second movement, leaving all but the most diligent students of classical music unaware that this was an inauthentic interpolation and not the work of Mozart.)

That is how it came about that the Revelation of the Most High and Holy One, which split the skies in a blinding flash from Long Beach to Long Island, remained unnoticed by all but a few astonished witnesses, small clusters of the homeless in San Diego, Boston, New York, Miami – persons who had, for whatever reason, been unable to find refuge near a television set that night and so found themselves wandering the streets, dolefully pondering the fate of Hawkeye and BJ, and gazing pensively at the sky at 10.32 pm Eastern Time, the precise moment at which the Revelation of divine majesty pierced heaven and earth.

It was these dazzled vagabonds who, the next day and every day thereafter, roamed the condemned cities of America, spreading the news of what they had seen and heard. They were the sole witnesses of eternal glory, the ones who had seen the dawning of a new aeon, who understood that all the world’s calendars had returned to zero on the night of February 28, that nothing would ever be the same from that time on. From stairwells and street corners and subway stations they proclaimed their solemn tidings and called for the world’s repentance and conversion to the One whose splendour filled the heavens. But they were ignored or derided by the public, lampooned by church leaders and theologians, hounded and persecuted by the police.

They made few converts, except among the delinquent, the homeless, the displaced. They were lonely witnesses, though from time to time they would congregate under cover of darkness at bus shelters and soup kitchens to cultivate their prophetic gifts and plan their strategies for the evangelisation of planet earth. They grew their hair long and dressed in old rags. They were rumoured to feast on locusts and bourbon. They called themselves the Eyes of the World.

Before long certain false teachings sprang up from within their ranks. According to some, the Revelation had in fact been only the beginning, soon to be succeeded by an even more irresistible display of heaven's supreme omnipotence. According to others, the universe had been obliterated on the Night of Nights, and the witnesses were now charged with preaching to the souls in prison, shadowy figures of the underworld who wandered the cities of the damned, eating and drinking and working and marrying, believing themselves to inhabit the land of the living though they dwelt among the dead, even their joys being the torments of the grave. Others propounded the doctrine that the Revelation had not been a public display at all, rather a secret which could be seen by none except the eyes of those few elect witnesses, guardians who must now protect the mysteries of their cult from all outsiders. Still others did not hesitate to conclude that Captain Hawkeye was the Antichrist, and declared that this Satanic personality had been locked in mortal struggle against the Almighty since the dawn of time, a colossal combat of darkness and light that would drag on, in bitter harmony, through all eternal ages.

Such theological aberrations were suppressed, and the witnesses continued to spread their teaching, preserving the sacred memory of the glorious Revelation. Even to this day, they are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; they are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. They are condemned as mad, accused of disturbing the peace, charged with public drunkenness and loitering and harassment. But these charges against us are false, and our witness is faithful and true. We are the Eyes of the World. Among those who walk in darkness we have seen a great light.

Statement signed by: Ben J. Miles
Address: c/o Harrison Avenue Homeless Shelter, Boston
Date of statement: 16 December 2010
Officer in charge: Daniel C. Stanton, Harrison Ave Police Station

Friday, 10 December 2010

The street preacher

At five o'clock in Sydney the shops and high-rises empty their contents on to the streets, people blinking in surprise at the sunlight, everyone either rushing to get someplace else or lingering to avoid it. On George Street I passed a woman with a spray can, doing portraits on big torn sheets of butcher paper. Someone handed me an ad for a Chinese restaurant or a topless bar, I can’t remember which. I got coffee and stopped a while to watch a boy playing a decrepit homemade guitar, his fingers conjuring aching Spanish music, as if by magic, from the acoustic stump. I stayed for two songs, then a guy in a suit called out a request, some pop song, and you could see the boy was humiliated but he played it anyway, I could hear the sad half-hearted improvisations as I walked away. At the corner a preacher thundered about judgment and Sodom and Gomorrah and the weight of sin that drags us down and drowns us. A born-again biker, picture perfect with his beer gut and angry black goatee and leather Jesus jacket, he was talking about damnation and repentance when his beady black eyes saw me. He saw me peering out at him from the perishing faces of his beleaguered congregation. He saw me drowning in Sydney’s sea of wickedness and threw me a lifeline, a hideous gospel plea, have you sinned? have you been born again? Nervously I averted my eyes, pushed my hands into my pockets, hiding my sins from him there like the stones in Virginia Woolf’s overcoat, heavy and precious and inexplicable.

Why do I shrink from the street preacher? Why do I hide from his piercing eyes and scuttle away and try to lose his voice in the consoling anonymous clamour of the street? As much as anyone else that day on George Street, I have to hope he’s wrong, that his implacable rage against the city is not the rage of God, that the face of God is more than blood and thunder and holy indignation.

But what if he’s right? I was losing myself in the crowd, but his words echoed behind me, something about horror and the Bible and salvation. What if he’s right, and salvation means rescue from a bottomless pit of divine hatred? Could I accept redemption on those terms, could anyone? Could I be born again? Or should I ask the preacher to lead me in a prayer of unredemption, ask him please don’t save me, please let me stay in hell with everybody else? If Sydney is Sodom and Gomorrah, wouldn’t it be better to stay and be swept away than to flee for the lonely mountains? Could I explain all this to the preacher? Would God accept my testimony if I chose to bear witness in hell instead of heaven, if I loved those God hates more than I love God?

The preacher wants my sins. He craves them like a wild and hungry thing, famished with righteousness. He would ask me to confess; he would suck the marrow from the bone. I heard his last words, if you die tonight, before his voice was swallowed up and lost in the city’s godless clamour. I went down the steps to the Town Hall station. Beside me on the platform two teenagers were making out. The girl’s ear was studded with silver, her body pushed up against the handrail. A man with a briefcase was talking into his phone, sweaty and earnest, probably a wife or mistress. I watched the rubbish on the tracks and waited. I wondered if the preacher had been a prophet or messiah, the last hard truth at the world's end. I hope I’ll never see him again. Sometimes it’s better to be damned and ruined than left naked without a name. Sometimes your whole life is just one dull sin after another, and you can’t honestly repent of all that, not even if you wanted to. I buried my hands in my pockets, counting out my sins one by one like pathetic rosary beads as the man on the phone said no fucking way and the girl with the earrings moaned and the train rattled into the station, drowning everything at last in a grey monotonous thunder.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Job: New Testament lecturer

My college in Sydney is advertising for a Lecturer in New Testament Studies.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The disappearance of friendship

I'm giving some talks this weekend on the theology of friendship. Today I talked about the disappearance of friendship, which I traced back to four modern cultural mythologies: the mythology of sex; the mythology of instinct; the mythology of the family; and the mythology of work. Here's a passage I quoted from Foucault on the modern disappearance of friendship:

Homosexuality became a problem … in the eighteenth century…. I think the reason it appears as a problem, as a social issue, at this time is that friendship had disappeared. As long as friendship was something important, was socially accepted, … it just didn’t matter. Once friendship disappeared as a culturally accepted relation, the issue arose: ‘What is going on between men?’ ... The disappearance of friendship as a social relation and the declaration of homosexuality as a social/political/medical problem are the same process. (Foucault, Ethics: Essential Works Volume 1, p. 171)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Luke Bretherton in Sydney

If you're in the Sydney area, you might like to join us next week for a two-day conference with Luke Bretherton on Christian faith and civic practice. There'll also be papers from various scholars (e.g. Scott Stephens, Neil Ormerod), and some involvement from the Sydney Alliance.

Luke's work will be known to many of you – he heads up the Faith and Public Policy Forum at King's College, and he has done important work on hospitality, drugs (again on drugs here), emerging church, and most recently Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilites of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell 2010).

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Barth blog conference: third week

The third week of the Karl Barth Blog Conference is now underway, this time focusing on recent continental philosophy. I'll add links as the posts appear, and you can also follow the links at the top of the sidebar:

Speaking of Taubes, a reader recently pointed out that one of my blog posts on Taubes is quoted in a recent book by the French historian and polemicist, Daniel Lindenberg: Procès des Lumières: Essai sur la mondialisation des idées. F&T: bringing you the joys of Jewish anarchism since 2005. (Not to be confused with the terrifying spectre of English anarchism.)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Three-year-old theology (again): God, hats, and monsters

A couple of nights after our previous conversation, my three-year old son talked with me further about God and monsters – I thought I'd record it here, since several people told me they enjoyed the last post. As I was tucking Jamie into bed, he related a dream from the night before. (He always remembers his dreams, and talks about them as though they really happened – he has a lofty disregard for the conventional distinction between dreams and reality.)

Boy: Last nike [night] there were two Gods and two Jamies. God give me glasses* so there wouldn’t be two.

Dad: Um... what happened?

Boy: Glasses, I wear the glasses. And God give me a hat, so the monster won’t get me.

Dad: A monster? Was this a dream you had?

Boy: It was a BIG monster, last nike, bigger than the ceiling. He was standing in the water, with a big hat.

Dad: The monster was wearing a hat?

Boy (shudders, and whispers): No – the hat is UNDERNEATH him.

Dad: That sounds like a scary dream. Were you scared?

Boy: No, I was happy. God give me a hat, and the monster fly away. But I don't have any glasses, so there were two Gods and two Jamies.

Dad (smiling): Oh, that sounds nice!

Boy (shocked by my ignorance): No, two Gods and two Jamies: it will be VERY bad. So God give me the glasses to stop it coming true.

Dad: Well, I'm glad God helped you.

Boy: But if you shut the door tonike [tonight], then it will come true.

Dad: So you want the bedroom door open tonight?

Boy: Yes. If you shut the door, it will all come true.

Dad: But if I leave the door open, with the hallway light on...

Boy: Then there will be one God and one Jamie.

* Interpretive note. I think his association between glasses and doubleness arises from his longstanding fascination with my glasses: when he looks into my bespectacled eyes, he sees “two Jamies” reflected.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Jesus FAIL

I think these speak for themselves...




Fail submitted by Paul Fischer.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Three-year-old theology: on God, monsters, and jellyfish

An intriguing theological discussion with my three-year-old boy tonight, just as he was drifting off to sleep:

Boy: "I need to sleep up in your bed, or the monsters under the house will come and get me. They'll come from far away."

Dad: "Are you sure there are monsters under the house?"

Boy: "Yes, and they will get me."

Dad: "You know, you're very safe now that we have a dog. What do you think Kola [our puppy] will do if he sees a monster under the house?"

Boy: "He will eat them."

Dad: "Exactly. Or maybe just chase them away."

Boy: "And they would run away."

Dad: "Yep. Because there's one thing monsters are really scared of..."

Boy: "Jellyfish."

Dad: "Jellyfish...? Right! And they're also scared of dogs, especially Kola."

Boy: "Kola will protect me."

Dad: "And you know who else will protect you?"

Boy: "Daddy. And mummy. And myself."

Dad: "And one more person: God always watches over you."

Boy: "Does God watch the Wiggles too?"

Dad: "I guess so. God sees everything in the world, and God cares for you."

Boy: "Yes, God cares for me. But God kills his self."

Dad: "Um, are you sure about that...?"

Boy: (Nodding sadly) "Yes, he kills his self."

Dad: "Well... God sends Jesus to us, and Jesus died for us."

Boy: "But is God scared of the monsters? Or just the baddies?"

Dad: "No, God's not scared of anything. God is greater than anything else."

Boy: "Is God as big as the ceiling? As big as the clouds? Bigger than the clouds?"

Dad: "Bigger than anything."

Boy: "So if God came into our house, he would be squashed and die. He will be dying forever."

Dad: "OK, go to sleep now."

--

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Prayer and baseball

Friday, 19 November 2010

On joy: twelve theses

A sequel to the theses on sadness.

1. As icons are painted on gold, so the lives of saints are written on a background of light.

2. Evelyn Underhill knew a saintly man, Father Wainwright. ‘He was an indifferent – and in later years an inarticulate – preacher; people came to his sermons, not so much to listen as to look at his face.’

3. Why are the faces of holy people so important, not only in iconography but also in Christian experience and memory? Joy is the physical surfacing of the light of God. As the moon reflects the sun, so joy shines in the holy face.

4. Each thing shines with its own particularity, the irreducible strangeness of its difference. Chesterton speaks of ‘the startling wetness of water’, ‘the fieriness of fire’, ‘the unutterable muddiness of mud’. Joy is the vision of each thing’s shining, an awareness of the unbearably bright difference of every other thing.

5. A painting summons us to relish its lines and colours; a tree invites us to marvel at its roots and leafy shadows; the body of a lover beckons us to draw delight from its hidden wells; young children demand that we face them while they play, so that the miracle of their difference will not be without witnesses. Left to ourselves we shrink inwards, anaesthetised by a drowsy solipsism. Joy is waking to reality; joy is salvation from the self. It is our startled response to the call of another.

6. Joy is itinerant and can be visited in many places, but its regular venue is friendship. Friendship is the love of difference. The face of the friend is the mirror in which the joy of one's own difference shines.

7. The subjective precondition for joy is not earnestness or sentimentality (much less a posture of generic ‘openness’), but attention. Attention is the discipline of active passivity, an intense concentration on what is there. It is what Simone Weil calls ‘waiting’: ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them [attendus].’ This is why Paul speaks of joy not as aesthetics but as ethics. Writing to the Philippians in the chains of Christ, he subjects them to a moral imperative: ‘Rejoice!’

8. Raw materials for a Christian ethics of joy: the distance of prayer; the patience of reading; the veneration of the meal; the delight of friendship; the tenderness of eros; the love of childhood; the obedience of learning; the speed of imagining; the superfluity of art; and the omneity of language.

9. Joy is most intimately related not to happiness but to sorrow, not to fullness but to the void of non-being. Joy is ontological vulnerability, a leap across the abyss of difference. Sorrow is a small hole in the flute through which joy breathes its tune.

10. Happiness is analogous to joy as Facebook is analogous to friendship, or as a brothel is analogous to marriage. Happiness is the gratification of desire. Joy does not fulfil desire but exceeds it so majestically as to obliterate it. Joy is ascesis, the criticism of desire. The criticism of desire is also desire’s purgation and renovation. Joy is the baptism of desire, its drowning and rising again. The fullness of joy is an ache of absence. ‘Our best havings are wantings’ (C. S. Lewis).

11. As that which breaks desire and denies all gratification, joy finds itself in a strange alliance with the tragic.

12. Joy resists articulation and control. It is always vanishing, always beckoning, inconsolable union of memory and hope. It cannot be grasped since its nature is to undo all grasping. What would it mean to possess joy fully, to hold it fast so that it did not vanish away? That would be resurrection: the shining of eternity in a body of death.

Apocalyptic session at SBL

If you're heading over to SBL this weekend, be sure to get along to the Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic session on 20 November, 4-6 pm. The panel will feature Douglas Harink, Ryan Hansen, Richard B. Hays, Nathan Kerr, and Joseph Mangina, and they'll be discussing Mangina's new theological commentary, Revelation (Brazos 2010).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

An evening with Cardinal Milbank

Last Monday evening, John Milbank gave a lecture at Swansea University on “The New Atheism and the Return of Religion”. Here is the vote of thanks by Kim Fabricius.

I read the email Nigel sent me in August announcing this lecture while I was eating, aptly, a jalapeno salad. And I wondered: which hot-stuff Professor Milbank were we going to get? The student of Rowan Williams who burst on the scene twenty years ago as the bête noire of theological liberals and apologists of the secular – (joke: Professor Milbank is standing on a cliff with a liberal and a fundamentalist. Who does he push first? The liberal: business before pleasure) – the radical young theologian who said, now famously, “Once, there was no ‘secular’”, and who plotted a declension narrative in the history of ideas that made Duns Scotus the fall guy in the plot? [With a wink to Milbank] Mind, the medievalist Marilyn McCord Adams, when she was here last year, said she was less than impressed by this reading of Duns!

Or perhaps we would get the friend of the cussed American apostle of nonviolence Stanley Hauerwas (three weeks ago the two shared a stage in London), the Milbank who proclaimed “the ontological priority of peace over conflict” – though who, when he became a father, began to reconsider the value of coercion, and who just over a week ago criticised Hauerwas’ Mennonite-inspired pacifism, arguing for the crucial contribution of Gandalf’s military campaign, as well Frodo’s self-sacrifice, for the salvation of Middle-earth. [“Of course Lord of the Rings is fiction”, I was tempted to add, but given the genre of my speech, I felt that I was already being – and was going to be – cheeky enough.]

Or were we going to get the robust churchman who, with no false humility, takes ecclesiology rigorously seriously, though Christology, many say, not nearly seriously enough? Or perhaps the oxymoronic Red Tory (or, as he prefers, Blue Socialist), whose colleague Philip Blond has been called the court theologian of David Cameron? Or the formidable public intellectual who goes head to head with the irrepressible atheist cultural theorist and Marxist media star Slavoj Žižek? Or perhaps the endorser of the pope’s vision of a muscular new European Christianity, not to say Christendom, to counter an aggressive irrational Islam, tacking far too closely, cry his horrified critics, to the winds of Western colonialism?

But what did it matter? Whatever the persona, we were sure to get a force of nature, or, better, super-nature.

As it has turned out, we got something different – but not completely different, because Professor Milbank’s project is nothing if not synoptic and comprehensive. After the cultural, scientific, and theological counter-attacks on the militant New Atheists by Terry Eagleton, Alister McGrath, and John Lennox respectively, some might have thought that Professor Milbank would be beating a rather battered army.

But this army continues to cause mischief, so Professor Milbank has brought his own considerable range of weaponry to the fight, pounding positions often unnoticed in the conventional mappings of the intellectual terrain: the cultural logic of the New Atheism; its politics too, the way the New Atheism would insidiously inform public policy; the relation of the New Atheism to the nihilism of neo-liberalism, the mirror image of the older atheism’s relation to the nihilism of communism; and, finally, the return of the repressed – religion – to fill the vacuum left by the intellectual exhaustion of secular ideologies, and, he argues, the rich potential of a sacramental Christianity, which remarries faith and reason after their modernist divorce, for a constructive and hopeful social agenda that eschews the pathology of fundamentalisms and transcends the reduction of human relations to assertions of power.

Professor Milbank, it is said by fans as well as foes, writes “difficult” prose (as Geoffrey Hill, he approvingly observes, writes difficult poetry). But whether in shock or awe, I think we all understood his lucid lecture tonight. Rumour has it that the prolific professor has written over a thousand pages for the sequel to his seminal Theology and Social Theory. Which might mean he’s just getting started. But whenever he finishes, I think we’d all relish a return visit (by air, I’d suggest) of the Sheriff of Nottingham to this humble, hospitable and once socialist Christian colony of Swansea.

THE PREQUEL

The lecture almost wasn’t. Milbank went to the wrong station in Nottingham, and the train he finally caught was doomed by delays. He finally disembarked at Port Talbot, where, taxi-less, he was driven the final few miles to Swansea by a kindly Welsh woman. Milbank deployed this special providence as a pointer to the existence of God in a nicely improvised overture to his noteless lecture, which began over an hour late. Most of the punters, well over a hundred, stayed (some retiring to the campus bars to kill time). After the announcement of the delay, I encouraged the audience to be patient with the following recycled joke:

On heading to Heathrow at the conclusion of his recent visit to the UK, the pope’s limousine hit a traffic jam, which turned to gridlock. It was imperative that the pope catch his plane, so he said to his driver, “My son, I cannot be late. Could you not drive on the hard shoulder to get me to the airport on time?”

“I’m sorry, your holiness,” said the driver, “but if I am stopped and get a ticket, my boss will sack me, and I have a large family to support. Forgive me, but we must be patient and wait for the traffic to ease.”

Undeterred, the pope said, “Let me drive then.”

The driver reluctantly agreed, and the two changed seats. The pope sped towards Heathrow on the hard shoulder – and sure enough, he was stopped by the police. The officer looked in the window. “Excuse me for a moment,” he said, and went back to his car to call his superior.

“I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I’ve just pulled over a limousine speeding along the hard shoulder, and, well, there is a very important person in the car.”

“How important?” replied the superior. “An MP?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Front bench?”

“More important than that, sir.”

“Not the prime minister!”

“No, even more important than that, sir.”

“Please don’t tell me it’s one of the younger princes – or even Prince Charles.”

“No, sir, I’m afraid even more important than that.”

“Are you telling me it’s the Queen?”

“Sir, even more important than the Queen.”

“Good God, man, who is it?”

“I don’t know, sir. All I can tell you is that the pope is his driver.”

Some of the audience asked me to tell some more jokes, but I couldn’t think of any clean ones.

THE SEQUEL

After the lecture, seven of us went for a meal at a posh restaurant where I was strategically seated next to Milbank. The table-talk ranged from Rowan Williams, particularly his recent political interventions, to J. Kameron Carter and David Bentley Hart (I didn’t want Milbank to throw up on me, so I didn’t mention Adam Kotsko); from (I suggested) his wildly sanguine hopes for the Tory-led government, to the Tea Party and (he suggested, persuasively) the US as a failed state; from Virgil (via a classics professor) to Virginia; from the earthly sports of cricket and rugby to the game of heaven. I would like to have drawn the famous metaphysical Platonist on the New Apocalyptics, and pressed him on his exiguous expository appeal to Jesus and the Bible, but in mixed company – hey, I’m not such a prat! Suffice to say that it was a terrifically enjoyable evening, and that Milbank was a congenial dining companion whose comments, even when quite opinionated, were as agreeably measured as the wine.

Following Milbank’s recent (I too thought, ridiculously impoverishedly Niebuhrian) ABC critique of Hauerwas’ pacifism, one blogger tetchily asked how Stanley could hang out with such an hombre. Perhaps it’s because Hauerwas is somewhat in awe of Milbank’s capacious and resourceful intellect. Perhaps it’s because he can better hone his own views against such a formidable and influential advocatus diaboli. However I suspect it’s simply because Milbank is a good friend.

--
In other Milbank-related news, see his latest ABC piece on Stephen Fry, sex, and homosexuality – and the lively dialogical response over at the new Women in Theology blog (see also their follow-up post). The recent King's College discussion between Hauerwas, Milbank, and Luke Bretherton is also now available in audio.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On smiling and sadness: twelve theses

1. The precursor of the human smile was the caveman’s savage grimace (Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile, p. 3). The invention of dentistry is the main difference between this threatening grimace and the polite social convention of the modern smile.

2. In the Protestant West today, smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.

3. The motif of late-capitalist society is the stylisation of happiness, the cultivation of lifestyles from which every trace of sadness has been expunged. Peter Berger identified ‘the Protestant smile’ as part of Protestantism’s cultural heritage in the West. In a Catholic country like France, it is still considered crass to smile too often, or at strangers. Evangelical churchliness is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness. Our cultural obsession with health, happiness, and positive thinking is a secularisation of the evangelical church service.

4. The cultural triumph of the smile leaves behind a trail of casualties. Where evangelical churches theologise happiness and ritualise the smile, sad believers are spiritually ostracised. Sadness is the scarlet letter of the contemporary church, embroidered proof of a person's spiritual failure.

5. When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularised, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalisation of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.

6. Somehow the appellation ‘man of sorrows’ attached itself to the church’s memory of Jesus. The sinless humanity of the Son of God was manifest not in happiness or success but in a life of sadness and affliction. Erasing sadness from our culture, we also erase Christ.

7. I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.

8. I know a fellow who was interviewed for ordination in an American denomination. Asked to describe his hope for the church’s future, his eyes filled with tears and he admitted, ‘I don’t know if I have any hope for the church.’ Perplexed by this response, his ecclesiastical interviewers furrowed their brows, scribbled little notes and question-marks, conferred gravely about his fitness for ministry – though they ought to have asked for his prayers, or poured oil on his head, or sat at his feet and made him their bishop.

9. Where sadness is expunged from a culture, the cry for justice falls silent. Johnny Cash carried darkness on his back, refusing to wear bright clothes as long as the world is unredeemed. Why do we dress our priests in black? Are they not in perpetual mourning for a world that is passing away? Is not Christian joy carried out in the shadow of this sadness? In a culture of happiness, it is all the more necessary that our priests continue to wear black, refusing the cheap comfort of bright vestments and the empty promise of the rainbow.

10. At the turn of the millennium, J. G. Ballard wondered how the next generation would perceive the 20th century: ‘My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection.’ How do we explain the fact that Auschwitz and Hiroshima are immediately succeeded by the cult of happiness and the triumph of the smile? How can it be that the worst century was also the happiest? Our children will interpret our happiness as blindness and self-forgetfulness. We have drugged ourselves against history; sadness is truthful memory.

11.Why are clowns so frightening? Their demonic aura comes from the fact that they never stop smiling. Hell is the country of clowns, where tormented strangers smile at one another compulsively and forever. The devil is the name we give to the Cheshire Cat that is always vanishing just beneath the surface of our world, leaving everywhere sinister traces of a cosmic painted grin. This grin is the secret of history.

12. The Bible promises the end of history and the end of sadness: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev 21:4). This can be understood as eschatological promise only on the presumption that history is catastrophe, a vale of tears. Sadness is overcome through cosmic redemption. A culture without sadness is a culture without hope. The cure for sadness is God.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

How to read philosophy

Yesterday morning I was reading stories by Borges, and then in the afternoon I read Giorgio Agamben's delightful new book, Nudities (Stanford UP 2010). This gave me a new intuition about Agamben's work: if you read it like a Borges story, it all makes perfect sense.

It's often helpful to read a book that way, against the grain of its own purported genre. Borges' own stories – perhaps the most purely fantastic fictional inventions ever written – are best read as history or philosophy. In an extraordinary book on fashion, Caroline Evans reads Marx "as gothic fiction rather than political economy". David Kelsey has noted that Karl Barth tends to read the Bible like "a vast, loosely structured non-fictional novel" – and I've often pondered whether Barth's own dogmatics is best read as an enormous digressive epic novel, more akin to Melville's Moby-Dick than to Aquinas' Summa.

So anyway, this got me thinking about the best genre in which to read various modern philosophers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Kant: an anatomy manual
  • Hegel: a darkly thrilling opera
  • Heidegger: a gothic novel of romantic horror
  • Early Wittgenstein: simple yet impossible IKEA assembly instructions
  • Later Wittgenstein: an immersive TV series on HBO
  • Simone Weil: a play by Samuel Beckett
  • Walter Benjamin: an aphoristic Twitter feed
  • Jean-Paul Sartre: a 1960s surfing film
  • Simone de Beauvoir: a Marquis de Sade novel
  • Carl Schmitt: a World of Warcraft quest
  • Emmanuel Levinas: a blind date
  • J. L. Austin: a rap album
  • Jean Baudrillard: a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick
  • Michel Foucault: a historical murder mystery
  • Jacques Derrida: a crossword puzzle
  • Judith Butler: a season of The Wire
  • Alasdair MacIntyre: a Jane Austen novel
  • Giorgio Agamben: a Borges story
  • Alain Badiou: a terrorist handbook
  • Slavoj Žižek: a sitcom
This would also make a fun party game for nerdy intellectuals, let's call it Musical Genres: the names of various writers (philosophers, novelists, theologians, writers of cookbooks) are placed in one hat, and the names of various genres (poetry, history, science fiction, pornography) are placed in another hat. Each person gets a random writer and a random genre, and has to describe the person's work in terms of that genre. For example: "In one of Plato's celebrated cookbooks, we read of a delicious but unexpectedly potent cocktail, fatefully sampled by Socrates, whose last words were, 'I think it needs more lime', and 'Ooo I feel all tingly'."

Note: On a more serious note, at the moment I can't seem to upload any pictures on to Blogger. Does anyone know how to fix this? Or better still, does anyone out there want to help me move the blog to its own domain?

Monday, 8 November 2010

Call for reviewers: Rowan Williams

Our friend Scott Stephens will be hosting a whole series of reviews on the new book by Rowan Williams and Larry Elliott, Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice (Palgrave 2010). There are still three review copies to give away – so please email Scott if you're interested in receiving a copy and writing a 1500-word piece for ABC Religion & Ethics.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics

In Atlanta today I presented a paper titled "Heaven in ordinary: George Herbert's poetics", as part of a panel responding to Regina Schwartz's book, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford UP 2008). My paper tried to respond to Schwartz's apophatic reading of George Herbert – here's an excerpt:

——
Now if I asked you, what is George Herbert’s most characteristic way of talking about God, I wonder what you’d immediately think of? Story or narrative? Positive doctrinal statement? Negation? No, surely the first thing that comes to mind is Herbert’s conceits (a technical term for extended, elaborate metaphors). He takes a small, seemingly insignificant item from everyday life – something from around the home – and turns it into a delicate picture of God’s activity, God’s involvement.

In one of his poems, the Sundays of our lives are likened to beads threaded on a string, adorning us and making us beautiful for God. In another poem, Christ’s graveclothes in the empty tomb (he loves writing about clothes) are a handkerchief with which to dry our tears when we’re sad and grieving:

Arise, Arise;
And with his burial-linen dry thine eyes:
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears, or blood, not want an handkerchief.


In ‘Holy Scriptures’ (I), Herbert compares the flat pages of scripture to God’s gracious condescension to the littleness of humanity. He says of scripture:

heav’n lies flat in thee,
Subject to ev’ry mounters bended knee.


Again, a homely picture based on a very simple, childlike observation: God’s word comes to us ‘flat’, and that means we can climb up to God by bending ourselves down low. With even the smallest effort, we can mount up to heaven, since it lies flat in holy scripture. A rather different picture from the mystical ascent of apophatic theology!

In another poem, ‘Jesu’, the human heart is like a children’s word puzzle: the letters are broken apart by affliction and scattered across the floor. When pieced back together, they spell both ‘I ease you’ (when the letters are spelled out individually: I-ES-U), and ‘JESU’ (when the letters are read all together). It’s a playful conceit, a little parable of God’s loving involvement with our lives – and with our language. (There’s a similar word-game in the poem ‘Colossians 3:3’, where the biblical text, my life is hid with Christ in God, is literally hidden in the lines of the poem, just as God’s work is hidden in the ordinary story of our lives.)

For a somewhat weirder conceit, consider ‘The Bag’. Here, the wound in Christ’s side is compared to a postman’s bag – if we want to ‘send or write’ anything to God, we can put our letters in this bag, the hole in Christ’s side, and like a reliable postman Christ will deliver our mail to God. He takes good care of our letters, placing them – here the conceit gets even stranger – placing them close to his heart:

If ye have any thing to send or write,
I have no bag, but here is room:
Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
Believe me, it shall safely come.
That I shall mind, what you impart;
Look, you may put it very near my heart.


Again, this is serious reflection on the way God becomes involved in human language. In Schwartz’s terms, we might even call this ‘language theory’, or poetics. But it takes the form not of positive theology or of negative theology, but of what Herbert himself calls ‘plainness’. Something like parable: a simple, rather humorous observation of daily life in an English village.

I won’t go on multiplying examples, since you can find these kinds of conceits on virtually every page of Herbert. It is his most characteristic speech-act, quite distinct from either apophatic or cataphatic strategies. Like the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels, Herbert can speak about God without so much as mentioning the word ‘God’. His poetry gives the impression that we can find God pretty much anywhere, that we can speak of God in virtually any language, especially the language of ‘plainness’, simplicity, the ordinary. ‘Heaven in ordinary’, as Herbert calls it – that is his language theory.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Book of the Body: a theological horror story

I was meant to be writing my conference paper on the flight to Atlanta, but I was (still) procrastinating – so I wrote a story instead:

In the summer of 2104, Susan Crimmins stares gloomily into the surface of her iDesk, grudgingly slumped amid silent busy rows of grad students who are, unlike her, already hard at work on their dissertations. The new library of Princeton Seminary is one of the finest examples of post-war subterranean minimalism, an octagonal concrete chamber one hundred feet below ground, lined with widening spirals of glass desks, information terminals, and holographic display cabinets. For two years now, Susan Crimmins has compiled, read, annotated unending lists of monographs and journal articles on the work of Jean-Pierre Lafont. But she has written nothing, has no research question, no clue of how to contribute to the general mass of learning, how to set sail across the vast black sea of human knowledge. For of all the great figures of world history, none has been investigated more extensively (or, as it sometimes seems to Susan Crimmins, more exhaustively) than Jean-Pierre Lafont.

Earlier today Susan Crimmins went to lunch with Catherine, her friend. They entered the same doctoral program at the same seminary at the same time, and today they celebrated Catherine’s successful defence of her dissertation: an inferential statistical analysis of one thousand recent geometric proofs of the existence of God, warmly commended by the examiners as a "competent and methodical contribution to tertiary literature". Catherine laughed and talked excitedly about her success, her examiners’ reports, her career plans, her glittering prospects. Susan Crimmins bought her friend a gift, paid for their lunch, said how much she admired her hard work and scholarly discipline, said her own dissertation was not far from completion, oh yes, any month now. Catherine has been her closest friend since their first day in seminary. She smiles at Catherine from across the table, and hates her.

When Susan Crimmins had announced her intention to write a dissertation on Jean-Pierre Lafont, her doctoral advisor Professor Arnold Meyer had urged her to consider a less formidable dissertation topic, something on the recent emergence of slum theology perhaps, or a summary of secondary literature on the doctrine of asphyxia. But Susan Crimmins was determined to study the work of Lafont, and, after his suicide last winter, Professor Meyer was replaced by a new advisor who seems generally more supportive, though Susan Crimmins has not yet met him in person. Who else is worth writing about, except Lafont? But how does one find a fresh angle on a writer like Lafont, after half a century of scholarly commentary, scrutiny, and dissection? If only a new manuscript were to surface, now that would really be something. Like Lafont’s dry-cleaning receipts, which were unearthed in an old archive box in the early 80s, producing a furious storm of scholarly reassessment and controversy, material for dozens of new books, special journal issues, feverish important dissertations.

But of course there is little hope of any further archival miracle of that order. Jean-Pierre Lafont wrote only three works in his lifetime, works whose secondary and tertiary literature now fill entire libraries. When his first work, The Book of Pathology, was published in 2032, Lafont was largely unknown, a young scholar from the south of France who spent twelve years quietly writing the book that would revolutionise Continental philosophy, initiate the Neo-Metaphysical movement, and dominate scholarly discourse for the next two decades.

After The Book of Pathology, Lafont was appointed to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but nothing further appeared from his pen until the publication of the colossal second volume, The Book of Technology, in 2054. With this work, Lafont was hailed as the most important thinker of his century. His name was spoken in the universities and in political speeches and in student protests and at dinner parties and religious services and cafés and brothels and airport lounges and movie theatres. For the second time, his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

But it was the third volume of the trilogy, written shortly before his death just two years later, that would secure Jean-Pierre Lafont’s reputation as the most important philosopher since Kant, or, as many scholars believe, since Plato himself.

In the library of Princeton Seminary, Susan Crimmins rubs her eyes. She stands and stretches. She is hungry again, though she got back from lunch only an hour ago. She swipes her card at the vending machine, gets a chocolate bar, a couple of stimulants, a caramel latte. She goes back to her desk.

It happened like this. On 28 September 2056, the great philosopher Jean-Pierre Lafont took a train to the village of Romage, near Grenoble, to make arrangements following the death of an uncle whom Lafont had known as a child but had not seen in many years. On 29 September he visited the village funeral home to select the Coffin, to plan the service, to choose the flowers (one small bouquet), to make the necessary payments, to sign what needed to be signed. There were no other living relations, and the service was to be a brief dignified affair with closed Coffin, followed by burial in the cemetery of Romage. On 30 September the funeral took place, though Jean-Pierre Lafont was not in attendance: he had inexplicably disappeared.

The mysterious and tragic accident (or malicious homicide, or heroic suicide: scholarly opinion remains divided) was discovered two days later, and the Coffin was promptly disinterred. Too late, of course, to save Jean-Pierre Lafont from his fate, his mort célèbre.

The incident was a philosophical and cultural sensation of unprecedented proportions. Not only because the century’s greatest philosopher had somehow inadvertently been buried alive, but because beneath the earth's dark surface he had written his third and final philosophical treatise, the epoch-making Book of the Body. For Jean-Pierre Lafont’s ballpoint pen had been buried along with him, and in that confined intolerable darkness he had torn the clothes from his skin (even his underwear was shredded as though by wild beasts) and had inscribed his timeless thoughts on to the writer’s last available medium. Tiny meticulous lines of text covered every square inch of the neck down to the hips of Jean-Pierre Lafont. Excurses and revisions and questions for further research covered the left arm, slender footnotes adorned the fingers of the left hand, the thumb, the phallus.

The publication of The Book of the Body was one of the greatest editorial achievements of all time. Lafont’s ink handwriting was tattooed on to the skin to prevent fading and the body was preserved by the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, allowing the text to be carefully studied and transcribed over many years. A second edition appeared in 2063, a slim volume of 42 pages, supported by nearly a thousand pages of textual notes and scholarly apparatus.

The Book of the Body was hailed in France and North America, and then throughout the world, as the most important philosophical work since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It performed a sweeping revision of all Western thought since Plato, diagnosing philosophy as an enormous cultural and political claustrophobia, a Closing, a suffocating spiritual and intellectual confinement. Pre-Lafontian scholars had, curiously, described their epoch as one of "Enlightenment", but Lafont testified to the absolute Darkness of the Closing of the philosophical mind. The Book of the Body euthanised the decrepit philosophical traditions of the past and inaugurated a new era in human thought. Lafont called this new epoch the Lifting of the Lid, or, as it is more commonly known today, the Opening.

As a student of Princeton Seminary, Susan Crimmins is naturally interested in the theological dimensions of Lafont’s work, though the library of theological interpretation is of course discouragingly vast. For a time she had hoped to write a history of the theological reception of The Book of the Body, but a three-volume study of its religious reception was published in German last year by Günter Hoffmann: a work of encyclopaedic scope that left little prospect for further study. After the appearance of Hoffmann’s work, Susan Crimmins had briefly considered suicide, which in many universities is still accepted in lieu of a dissertation. Some of the most distinguished theologians have submitted themselves to burial, and it was a great fad among religious writers and students, especially in the 60s. But in spite of everything, and in spite of her commitment to Openist theology, Susan Crimmins finds that she does not have the stomach for ritual burial. She reveres the Coffin as much as anybody, to be sure, but feels (though might never admit it) an embarrassing residual attachment to her two cats, her red wool sweater, her indoor Chinese evergreen, her G-spot, her collection of antique soda bottles.

As fate would have it, The Book of the Body was left unfinished when the ballpoint pen ran out of ink halfway down the right thigh of Jean-Pierre Lafont, though one school of interpreters claims that the pen was already empty at the time of Lafont’s burial, that he had been composing the work on his body in the days and months leading up to the burial, that the commonsense interpretation of those events is a devious intrusion of the Closed metaphysics of cause and effect, that the burial and The Book of the Body are random events, unrelated by causation or necessity or logic. Susan Crimmins, beleaguered doctoral student of Princeton Theological Seminary, used to favour this latter view herself, though now, on further reflection, and after studying the First Edition where it is exhibited in the Musée du Louvre, laid out staring and naked and open-mouthed in its original black wood Coffin, she remains uncertain, undecided, Open.

Butterflyfish: giveaway winners

When Matt Myer Boulton saw all the comments responding to our giveaway post, he kindly offered to provide not one but three copies of the new Butterflyfish album. So here are the three lucky winners (please email Matt with your shipping address):

  • Dave Belcher (for being the first to comment)
  • Peter Orchard, aka Besideourselves (for having 7 children and still finding time to study theology)
  • Pamela (for teaching kindergarten children)
To get a copy of this great new album, head on over to the Butterflyfish website (also available from iTunes).

Friday, 29 October 2010

AAR Annual Meeting, 2010

Thousands of theologians, religionists and other people of doubtful character are now descending on Atlanta, Georgia for the 2010 AAR meeting. I arrived a few hours ago – the first time I've ever been way down south in Dixie. I'll be involved in three sessions:

As always there's a terrifying number of papers and panels. Here are some that stood out when I browsed through the program – if you know of any other interesting panels (or if you'd like to mention your own panel), feel free to comment.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Giveaway: Butterflyfish, Great and Small

I've posted before on the wonderful children's band, Butterflyfish, headed up by Harvard theologian and all-around-nice-guy, Matthew Myer Boulton. The band now has a new album, Great and Small – and they've kindly offered a giveaway copy, so leave a comment to enter the draw.

I can't recommend this album highly enough, especially if you (a) have children in your house, (b) get migraines from the usual clatter of kids' music, (c) enjoy a bit of gospel-jazz-country music, and (d) think that children are actually smart enough to understand the Christian faith, not just pious banalities.


The new Butterflyfish songs (also blogged about here and here) are a jubilant celebration of music, life, forgiveness and grace. My favourite song, "You Be You", is a gorgeous, musically luxuriant duet about the joys of singing and making music – I dare you to try listening to it without grinning from ear to ear. 

The title track, "Great and Small", is based on the Hasidic saying that each of us should carry around two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One piece of paper says "I am but dust and ashes": I read this when I'm feeling proud and self-important. But when I'm feeling worthless or ashamed, I read the other piece of paper, which says: "For me the world was created." The song reflects this humble-yet-proud duality of our relationship to God:

Deep down here inside my pocket there’s a little piece of paper
I take it out and read it when I’m feeling out of shaper
To keep my fears at bay,
It says you are great

Deep down in my other pocket there’s another piece of paper
I take it out and read it when I’m getting into shaper
When I’m walking tall, 
It says you are small

Dust to dust we shall return
The whole wide world was made for us to learn
That we are great and small
We are tiny and tall
Remember through it all
We are great and small


Another song, "The Gospel Story", serves up some serious theological reflection on the relation between our world and the coming kingdom of God:

I ain't goin' up to heaven in the sky
I ain't flyin' with the angels when I die
I ain't gonna rise up in the clear
Cause I do believe my dear
Heaven's comin' down here

That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan
Kingdom of glory's right here at hand
So don't you worry, woman and man
That's the gospel story
That's the gospel plan

This is a fun and colourful song, but the theology is potent. Honestly folks, is there anything more disturbing than the way Christian books and music for kids cultivate a life-denying obsession with the afterlife? A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a young church-going kid. I asked what she wants to do when she grows up, and she replied right away: I want to die and go to heaven to be with Jesus. If the gospel teaches our children to be in love with death, is that really better than not hearing the gospel at all? Of course I'm not suggesting that the eschatological hope should be erased: but the point of eschatology is that it floods this world and this life with the light of hope. 

The other day my six-year-old daughter (who loves to draw) asked me about heaven. I gave her my own theories on the subject, and then she said: "I think heaven is where I won't make any mistakes in my drawing." I told her that I couldn't possibly improve on that definition.
Anyways, leave a comment if you'd like to be in the running for a free copy of this terrific new album, Great and Small.

Oh and in other musical news, last night I enjoyed a long and lively conversation – about ghosts, haunted houses, Karl Barth, Abraham Kuyper, fireplaces, pickled eggs, and special revelation – with Eric of the indie band Fielding. They have a new album, The Voice of Us, which I've been listening to lately. My favourite song is "Asher" – you can hear on their Myspace page. The album is available from iTunes, Rhapsody, or eMusic.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

What Would Jesus Steal

A reliable source informs me that one of Australia's big Christian bookstore chains has serious problems with shoplifting. Can you guess what their most-stolen item is?

The WWJD bracelets.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Reading and progress

(I've been sketching some theses on reading as a follow-up to the theses on writing. One of the points became long and unwieldy, so I'm posting it separately here.)

In a culture that worships progress, even reading an old novel becomes a theological act.

Today belief in progress far exceeds the most extravagant excesses of 19th-century enlightened Europe. Belief in progress is cemented deep beneath the floorboards of our culture; if we rarely speak of it, that is only because it has attained the status of an absolute fides implicita. We believe in progress as we believe in financial credit: a powerful silent credendum that gives shape to our social behaviour, preferences, and habits of mind.

In the temple of progress the doors are never shut and the priests never sleep. The worship of progress produces a new kind of moral imagination: the technological mind. Implicit in every new technology – without exception – is the belief that the New is a historical ‘advance’ on the old, that newness rides the crest of a teleological wave. No one lines up for the iPhone 4 believing it will be worse than the previous model, a step ‘backwards’ (i.e., against the direction of history).

The worship of progress is likewise the secret of all contemporary cultural values, which are held up as self-evident and infallible on account of their teleological relation to the antiquated values of the past. Witness the recent emergence of political correctness, surely the most remarkable cultural phenomenon of the past few decades, memorably described by one commentator as ‘the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation’ (Peter Hitchens). In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault identified the Panopticon not merely as an isolated phenomenon but as the emblem of a whole cultural epoch. The emblem of our time is the managerial memo, stipulating the correct use of words and values.

When the cultural history of our time is written, will it not be organised around the twofold emergence of internet technology and political correctness? (And is it not conceivable that some future historian will also devote a minor chapter to the emergence of enforced euthanasia in the later 21st century? We are morally offended by whatever is old; it’s only a matter of time before blood is demanded at the altar of progress.) Our cultural and political life deems inadmissible anything that is outdated or ‘backwards’, anything that fails to reflect the teleological direction of history. In a society ruled by progress, the most powerful person is the one who stipulates new (progressive, forward-looking) values, and the policies to enforce them: just think of university management. Increasingly, it is not only the technological innovator but also the values-driven manager who serves as high priest of the technological society.

Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy technology as much as anyone; I just don't think it makes a very good deity. And this is where reading comes in. In a society that worships progress, reading is a site of resistance. To read is to refuse the ideology of progress. Reading is a lunge backwards into the continuum of history. The reader refuses to accept that the relation between past and present is always and necessarily one of teleology. In the night sky we peer deep into the past, at light emitted millions of years ago by dying stars. Books are the twinkling lights of the human past. Reading is the experience of the simultaneity of past and present. It is a silent witness against the god of progress and those who clamour at its temple. Reading is a preferential option for the past.

As the prophet Daniel disobeyed the king’s edict and prayed to the Lord three times a day, so readers bend their minds to the past, quietly ignoring the decrees of progress. A whole society gathers smilingly around the bright battery-operated glow of its temple, whispering the hypnotic mantras of values and progress. To speak or act otherwise is forbidden by sovereign edict. Three times a day I go into my room and read, the windows open as before towards Jerusalem.

Update: C. S. Lewis responds.

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