Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Some notes on writing

I suppose I've wanted to be a writer ever since I learned to read: certainly I don't recall any time in my life in which I was not already writing or dreaming up stories to write. (The earliest story I can find begins inauspiciously enough: "Fredrick Vonhoppinstein was an ordinary person, living in an ordinary home, with a semi-ordinary family.")

All in all, I guess I've been writing nearly every day for the past quarter-century. And for me, one of life's deepest mysteries is how one can practice something so assiduously for such a long time and still be so bad at it.

But in my perpetual lust for better writing (a bit like lusting after Marilyn Monroe – you know it's pointless, but you can't help yourself), I carry around a couple of small notebooks wherever I go. This is not only to capture the skeletons of ideas before they rattle back into the dark, but also to record suggestions on how to improve my own writing.

For example, I keep a list of good words that I have never used. Can you believe I've never once used the word vociferous, or pallor, or frenetic? Or even glum? (Technically I could cross those four off the list now: but it would feel like cheating.)

I also keep a list of words or constructions or catch-phrases that I tend to use too often. This is a repository of personal clichés that I should try to avoid. But it's one thing to record them: getting by without them can be surprisingly difficult. I'm well aware, for instance, that my talk about God tends to fall back on well-worn Barthian language about God's act and event. These words were fresh and arresting when Karl Barth was writing, but they're now formulaic, a mere glazing over of the eyes. And notice that last phrase: I use words like mere and simply way too often. This can actually be a kind of manipulation, a lazy attempt to avoid the hard work of describing a precise relationship or building a convincing argument. (And as you can see from that sentence, I also use "a kind of" much too often: here, my notebook warns me that this is often "a symptom of a sloppy sentence".)

Another example: even in scholarly writing, I'm often tempted to say things like "we should" or "we must". My notebook issues a withering critique: "Just make your point without first patting the reader on the back like an old school chum. Whether or not the reader is on your side is not for you to say. Your job is to show them what you see." I hesitate to continue: my notebook is unforgiving about this sort of thing (crosses "unforgiving" off the list).

Thumbing through the notebook, I can see other handy lists: good verbs, weird metaphors, plots of short stories, interesting references about the practice of writing. I also have a little catalogue of the best stylists of scholarly prose: Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, C. S. Lewis, Michel Foucault, James Wood. (Is Wood the best living prose writer? Probably.) I've toyed with the notion of classifying these writers – a sort of prose physiognomy – on the principle that all bad writing is alike, but all good writing is good in its own way. Borges's tiny glittering ideas; Benjamin's breathless march of aphorisms; the wicked humour of Lewis's sly metaphors.

So anyhow, I thought I'd start an occasional series on writing (maybe one post each week), with observations and advice from various writers. So if you hate your own writing as much as I hate mine, stay tuned – help is on the way!

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Anzac Day and the god of war

Today is Anzac Day, Australia's most sacred religious holiday. All around the country, it is celebrated by the state, the military, the media, the schools – and not least of all by the Christian church.

I usually go into anaphylactic shock at the mere thought of an Anzac Day church service. (This year, I was even invited to preach at such a service: but I politely declined, on the grounds that I'm trying especially hard this year to avoid eternal damnation.) Still, at church this morning I heard a surprisingly good Anzac Day sermon: an explanation of some of the holiday's religious/theological mythology, together with a critique of the way our culture identifies military "sacrifice" with the sacrifice of Christ. (The most common Bible verse on Australian war memorials is, "Greater love hath no man than this...")

The theological mythology of Anzac Day is especially vivid if you look at some of the country's war memorials. Sydney's Anzac War Memorial is designed like an ancient Greek temple. Inside it features Rayner Hoff's stunning 1934 bronze sculpture, Sacrifice, which depicts the body of a soldier held aloft on the altar of his shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, while the whole form rises like a phoenix from the flames below. It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It's hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state.
Interestingly though, Hoff made two other bronze sculptures for the memorial – but only Sacrifice was included. One of the other sculptures, The Crucifixion of Civilisation, would have challenged this central image – and it might also have challenged the romanticisation of war that has become so prevalent in Australia today:
In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons, and other wreckage of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: "Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars. The Greek helmet animalistically gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the cuirass of the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman's body."

It's a shame this piece is absent from the Anzac War Memorial. And it's a shame our churches have not reflected more on the religious symbolism of this holiday. In these devout celebrations, it's surely worth asking to whom these devotions are offered year after year – the Father of Jesus, or an insatiable pagan god of war?

During the insightful sermon that I heard this morning, the preacher displayed various images of Australian war memorials. My two-year-old son was with me. When he saw the Sydney memorial (pictured above), he whispered in my ear: "Is it a church?" I replied, "Yes, sort of." Still looking at the image, he said, in his broken syntax: "Little bit scary church." I can't think of a more apt critique.


You might also like to check out a new critique of Anzac Day by some of Australia's leading historians: What's Wrong With ANZAC? The Militarisation of Australian History (UNSW Press 2010).

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A typology of generations

I reckon you could write a moral history of the past hundred years using a denominational typology. The past four generations would be described like this:

  • Our great grandparents had their homely Catholic piety.
  • Our grandparents had their Calvinist work ethic.
  • Our parents had their Anabaptist political zeal.
  • Bereft of all the above, today we have a vague sense of Unitarian irony.
And if you follow this trajectory a little further, I'm afraid there's only one logical conclusion: our children will grow up to be atheist assholes.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A new introduction to Karl Barth

So if you need an accessible introduction to Barth to go with your new set of Church Dogmatics, I've got just the thing for you: the impressive and delightful Welsh theologian Densil Morgan has a nice new volume, The SPCK Introduction to Karl Barth (SPCK 2010), 116 pp. (also available from Amazon UK).

Here's an endorsement I wrote for the back cover (along with endorsements by Oliver Crisp, John Webster and Tom Hastings):

Barth was an exciting thinker, and the best writing on Barth manages to capture something of that boundless energy and excitement. D. Densil Morgan offers a vigorous, fast-paced narrative that weaves together Barth’s life, his intellectual development, his turbulent political settings, and the overall shape of his theological work. He provides a remarkably clear and concise overview of the whole Church Dogmatics, with a welcome emphasis on Barth’s anthropology and the rich “humanism” of his thought.

Monday, 19 April 2010

New ABC religion portal

A while back I mentioned a job advertisement for a new online religion editor at Australia's ABC. Apparently there was a huge number of applicants – but I'm delighted to say that the job has gone to our own friend Scott Stephens: regular F&T writer, political commentator, provocateur, preacher (the best I've ever heard), voracious cook and conversationalist, and all around nice guy.

Scott will be heading up the ABC's new religion portal – a unique site that will feature news, commentary, interviews, video, audio, opinion, and various aggregated content from around the web. (You can get a general idea by looking at the ABC's superb environment portal.) I expect this will be a major event not only for the public debate and discussion of religion in Australia, but also for the dissemination of high-quality religious/theological content on the global web. Scott has already lined up some fantastic writers and contributors, and he's happy to receive expressions of interest from potential freelance contributors.

Elsewhere in the ABC, you can also hear Scott, together with A. C. Grayling, P. Z. Myers and others, discussing contemporary atheism.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

On laughing at your preacher

When it comes to sermons, nothing is more entertaining than a badly used metaphor. Here are two recent examples that I've come across:

A friend of mine recently attended a Christian wedding. The bride's father (a fiery preacher) gave a warm speech on the centrality of Christ in Christian marriage. With immense feeling, he proclaimed: "Every good Christian marriage is a threesome."

Even better: a few months ago my wife went along with some friends to a big charismatic church. The preacher was talking about a certain evangelist – he had been cured of his former homosexuality, and he now had a vibrant ministry among other gay men. With penetrating spiritual intensity, the preacher exclaimed: "Who knows how many seeds he has sown into the gay community?"

The most extraordinary thing about these incidents: in both cases, not a single person actually dared to laugh.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Sarah Coakley and other conferences

So I've finally done up a poster for the Sarah Coakley symposium. If you visit the website, you can check out the programme and the abstracts, and you can also download a registration form if you're interested in coming along.

And speaking of conferences, here are some other (mostly Australian) upcoming events to note:

  • There's a Bavinck Conference coming up in Edinburgh
  • There's a call for papers for a journal issue on The Church after Google
  • The annual Barth Blog Conference is coming up in a few months – my contribution is on Barth and Jacob Taubes
  • Engaging the Basis is a conference coming up in Melbourne – I'll be giving a paper on "theology and contemporary thought" (maybe focusing on cyberspace, or maybe something on contemporary philosophical readings of Paul)
  • I'm also giving a paper in Brisbane this month (on Calvin) as part of a seminar series on Anachronism in Intellectual History
  • The AACC conference in Brisbane includes Markus Bockmuehl and Robert Gordon
  • A Melbourne conference on gender equality features Graham Cole and Kevin Giles
  • This week Catherine Keller is speaking at a conference on The Politics of Peace
  • And N. T. Wright and others are at Wheaton this week discussing Jesus and Paul
  • The Princeton Barth Conference this year is on missional theology, and it features some of the best and brightest – Nate Kerr and John Flett – together with distinguished folks like Eberhard Busch and Darrell Guder
  • The ANZATS conference in Melbourne is focusing on eschatology – Paul Fiddes is the keynote
  • Also in Melbourne, the Prayer and Spirituality conference should be very good – it features Sarah Coakley, Hal Drake and Sean Freyne
  • Later this year in Sydney, Jeremy Begbie will present the New College Lectures – I'm really looking forward to it!
  • And it's not exactly an academic conference... but in May, a crazy cool radio station in Sydney will be doing a 5-hour Bob Dylan marathon, in honour of the great man's birthday.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics for $99

Readers of this blog will be familiar with recent publishing developments around Barth's Church Dogmatics. I've already discussed the new 31-volume edition and the Logos digitisation, and I've also mentioned the astonishing and indispensable Digital Karl Barth Library. (Incidentally, I'm very pleased that my own institution has now activated a subscription to this database – current students can access it here.)

Anyway, it's very exciting to note another new development: T&T Clark have sold the publishing rights of the old 14-volume edition to Hendrickson. So Hendrickson will now be producing an affordable hardcover reprint of the Church Dogmatics: it's due for release in November, and it's currently selling for $99 through Christianbook.com. There's also a blog entry which answers various questions about this reprint.

So for all those of you who've felt dismayed and rebuffed by the high prices of the existing editions, this is a fantastic opportunity. Kudos to T&T Clark and Hendrickson for making this great work available to a much wider audience!

(Incidentally, if you've never understood why you should read Karl Barth, I refer you to the picture above: the man is on a postage stamp for heaven's sake! Read him!)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A month with Walter Benjamin

Few things give me greater pleasure than immersing myself in the oeuvre of a single author. Each year my reading tends to cluster around one or two main writers. Some time ago I spent several months working through nearly all of Foucault. I once spent nine months reading nothing but Augustine. When I first discovered Karl Barth, I read him every day for two years (and barely understood a word of it for the first year). And as an undergraduate I remember skipping classes so that I could sit at the beach reading volume after volume of Virginia Woolf, listening to the sea and the crying gulls while she laid my soul bare.

Anyway, over the recent Christmas break I devoted a very happy month to Walter Benjamin. Previously I had only ever read him in bits and pieces, so it was a joy to work through the five paperback volumes of his Selected Writings (Harvard UP 1996-2003), plus an assortment of other volumes – Gershom Scholem's account of their friendship, Terry Eagleton's book on Benjamin, the weirdly insightful little collection On Hashish. I had hoped also to read the huge edition of Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project (Harvard UP 2002), plus Susan Buck-Morss’s huge study of the same: but these will have to wait for another day. It was a great pleasure though to flick through the lavish edition – more an exhibition than a book – of Walter Benjamin's Archive (Verso 2007). Here you can examine all manner of texts and artefacts from Benjamin’s archive: index cards, catalogues, notebooks, word games, photos of his toy collection, samples of his incredibly small handwriting (one of his life ambitions was to fit 100 lines of writing on a normal sheet of paper). In one notebook, he scrupulously records the language and games of his son Stefan – a tender and very beautiful archive of the way a child experiences the world. (Benjamin was an astonishingly keen observer of children; some of his most remarkable texts explore the imaginative landscapes of childhood.)

Walter Benjamin encounters the world with an unbounded curiosity and attentiveness. He brings extraordinary insight to a bewildering variety of themes and topics: art, literature, theatre, politics, children’s books and toys, gambling, writing, food, cities, brothels, Charlie Chaplin (“Chaplin never allows the audience to smile while watching him. They must either double up laughing or be very sad”), memory, history, technology, pedagogy, theology, astrology, photography, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Naturally I was especially interested in his theological insights (familiar to anyone who has read his theses on history). Here’s a few passages that I marked as I was reading the Selected Writings:

“In order to struggle against retribution, forgiveness finds its powerful ally in time. For time, in which Ate [the daughter of Zeus] pursues the evildoer, is not the lonely calm of fear but the tempestuous storm of forgiveness which precedes the onrush of the Last Judgment and against which she cannot advance. The storm is not only the voice in which the evildoer’s cry of terror is drowned; it is also the hand that obliterates the traces of his misdeeds, even if it must lay waste to the world in the process.” (1:286-7)

“The profoundest antithesis to ‘world’ is not ‘time’ but ‘the world to come’.” (1:226)

“The killing of a criminal can be moral – but never its legitimation.” (1:481)

“Only the Messiah himself completes all history…. For this reason, nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic; it cannot be established as a goal. From the standpoint of history, it is not the goal but the terminus…. Nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive for such a passing away – even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature – is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” (3:305-6)
In Volume 4 of the Selected Writings (Benjamin’s last writings before his suicide), the editors have entitled the final section “Materialist Theology”. This includes his explosive theses on the concept of history:
“The soothsayers who queried time and learned what it had in store certainly did not experience it as either homogenous or empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance – namely, in just this way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future: the Torah and the prayers instructed them in remembrance. This disenchanted the future, which holds sway over all those who turn to soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future became homogenous, empty time. For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter.” (4:397)
For me, another highlight is Benjamin’s reflections on writing. He was a writer of enormous power and acuity, and he thought a great deal about the writing process, including the importance of its material conditions (the paper, pens, and so forth). If I don’t forget, I’ll try to post on this some time soon. Finally though, I leave you with a very charming, typically Benjaminian metaphor about books:
“Books, too, begin like the week – with a day of rest in memory of their creation. The preface is their Sunday” (2:287).

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

ER: an Easter sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

ER – Easter Resurrection, of course! But ER also refers to something else – the “Emergency Room” – which is what Americans call your “Casualty Ward”. It also refers to the award-winning American hospital drama ER which concluded in April last year.

For me one of the most memorable episodes is the one in which Carter flies from Chicago to the civil war-torn Congo to fetch the body of his Croatian friend and colleague Kovaç. Kovaç has been out in the African bush doing voluntary medical work, but he has now been reported killed in the fighting. In fact, Kovaç is still alive. Flashback: it shows a group of men captured by irregulars, kneeling in a clearing, their arms thrown back over their heads, their wrists tied together. One by one they are being dragged by soldiers into a hut and summarily executed. A close-up shows Kovaç talking to the terrified man next to him about how he lost his belief in God. It had happened during the recent bloody ethnic conflict in the Balkans: Kovaç’s devout Catholic faith died as a result of the genocidal atrocities he had witnessed. And then motioning his head towards the hut and the atrocity they are now witnessing, Kovaç says, “It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death.”

“It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death.” It is indeed. Kovaç speaks for all of us. For ask yourself: What, in fact, act as triggers for, or a confirmation of, popular belief in the reality of God?

Nature for one: a stunning sunset, a star-lit sky, a snow-covered mountain, or just a glorious summer day. Or, more philosophically, the sheer existence of the world, the fact that there is “something” rather than “nothing”; more specifically, the exquisite “design” of the universe, its order, beauty, and variety.

Then there is worship and prayer – here too people say they know the reality of God. There is the Bible and (for some!) the sermon, and also the sacrament. There are stirring hymns. And there is prayer, spoken or silent, “the peace of God that passes all understanding”.

Then there is music, art, and literature. In a symphony by Beethoven or an opera by Mozart, in a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by Rembrandt, in a sonnet or play by Shakespeare or a novel by Tolstoy – there too people say they sense the reality of God.

And, of course, in human relationships – in romantic and conjugal love, in the birth of a baby, in the bond between parents and children, in close friendships – here also people see God at work.

But “amidst suffering and death”? How often have you heard someone say they found faith amidst suffering and death? No, amidst suffering and death people don’t find faith, rather, like Kovaç, they lose it. The question “How can one believe in God after Auschwitz?” haunts the post-Holocaust religious imagination and continues to beggar contemporary belief. And the answer is: “Only if one can believe in God in Auschwitz.”

Which takes us to a graveyard in Jerusalem on the first Easter Sunday morning. Jesus of Nazareth, who attested to the reality of God in his ministry, is dead, murdered by judicial execution, taken out and, not shot, but crucified, a much worse fate. His mangled body now lies in a tomb in the early stages of putrefaction. On the large stone that covers the tomb might well be written the graffiti “God is dead”. God certainly does not seem to be present. The disciples have scattered in fear, the women have gathered to mourn, but they do not feel that God is there with them. They feel only the gaping hole of God’s absence.

We moderns – we think that the question raised by the crucifixion of Jesus, and answered by the resurrection of Jesus, is: Is there life after death? But that was not the burning question on the minds of the first friends of Jesus. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death, but most of first century Judaism did. So too did almost all the pagan world. Socrates could drink the hemlock with a smile, knowing that his soul was escaping the tomb of the body and returning to the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. But Jesus died on the cross in agony and doubt. The God he claimed to represent did not save him. Had Jesus been deluded, or borne false witness? Had God, by his silence, dissociated himself from Jesus and consented to his death? Indeed, did the execution of Jesus signify God’s judgement and curse on Jesus? These questions about the reality of the God of Jesus – questions not about life after death but questions, indeed, of life and death – these were the questions of the first friends of Jesus. For, with Dr. Kovaç, they would have agreed that it is hard to believe in the reality of God in the midst of such suffering and death.

Can you see, then, the really radical content of the Easter message that the crucified Jesus is risen and reigns? That his coronation has taken place not on a throne but on a cross, and that his regalia were a crown of thorns, not jewels? That his reign begins not in a royal palace but in a wretched graveyard? That even now he wears the scars of his torment, and that he will wear them for all eternity? It is hard to believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death? On the contrary, Good Friday and Easter proclaim that one can only – ultimately – believe in the reality of God amidst such suffering and death, that such suffering and death are the acid test of authentic faith.

You might say that Easter relocates the reality of God and redefines the holy, taking us off the sacred path of spiritual highs and into the wilderness of desolation. Easter tells us that God is precisely in those places where you would never expect to find him. Easter confirms that Jesus was not deceitful or deluded, confirms that God was with Jesus in his ministry, confirms that his practices of forgiveness in the face of vengeance, truthfulness in the face of lies, and non-violence in the face of intimidation are the practices of God himself; but, further still, Easter asserts that the places such practices lead – the witness box of Caiaphas, the judgement hall of Pilate, the torturer’s cell and the executioner’s block, and, finally, the graveyard – that these seemingly most unholy of places are, in fact, the holiest of grounds.

Not apart from suffering and death and only in those pleasant places of nature, worship, art, and family and friends, but in suffering and death God, God experiencing it, absorbing it, transforming it into a new kind of life – that is the message of today’s ER. And it turns out to be the message of the telly ER too. For even as Kovaç, the last man left, awaits his execution, he suddenly begins to pray. Not the atheist’s prayer of desperation, a prayer for deliverance with nothing left to lose. No, it is a prayer of communion with the God Kovaç suddenly senses is real in the midst of such suffering and death. His former faith was truly dead and buried, but a new faith has risen from its grave. As the poet W. H. Auden would put it, he doesn’t believe still, he believes again. My friends, it’s a new day: like Kovaç, may we all experience “a joy whose historical form is integrity in darkness” (Nicholas Lash) – and believe again.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Execution: a Good Friday sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It was fifty years ago, a day in May in 1960 (May 2, to be exact) – and I’ll never forget it. I was eleven, in the sixth grade, and we were sitting in Mrs. Turner’s class. And we were all watching the clock. For the end of the lesson, or lunch-break, or the final bell of the day? No, for the striking of the hour. Because when the hour struck, some pellets containing lethal gas would drop into the chamber in which a condemned man sat strapped to a chair in San Quentin Prison on the other side of the country, and in a few minutes Caryl Chessman would be dead.

The case was a cause célèbre. Chessman was a twenty-seven year-old parolee who had spent the better part of his adult life in and out of prison, when, in 1948, he was arrested in Los Angeles, allegedly as the notorious Red-Light Bandit. The Bandit would approach women parked in isolated places, flash a red light resembling one used by the police, rob them, and then, after forcing them to another location, rape them. Chessman signed a confession – which, however, he later retracted, claiming police brutality – but the confession, along with eye witness testimony, led to Chessman’s conviction on seventeen counts, including kidnapping. Under California’s “Little Lindbergh” Law, kidnapping was a capital crime. The jury did not recommend the mercy of a life sentence.

Thus began a twelve-year struggle for Chessman to escape the gas chamber. Chessman himself wrote four books in his defence, which were translated into several languages. Pleas on his behalf came in from around the world, and from some very famous people: Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Pablo Cassals, Aldous Huxley, even Billy Graham. There were eight stays of execution. The Governor of California Edmund Brown was himself an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, but he said that the law had tied his hands. The execution finally went ahead.

And as the seconds ticked by on the clock that we all watched in Mrs. Turner’s class, I wondered what it must be like. The last night, the final meal, the ultimate good-byes, the preparations, the walk to the gas chamber – step, step, step – the sitting-down, the strapping-in, the waiting-for the pellets to fall and release their fatal fumes – stay calm, breathe easy, die with dignity – but then the poison pounds your lungs, you feel the fire, you gasp and choke, and mercifully you finally lose consciousness... At least that’s the way I pictured it.

Unable to produce a reasoned argument, but viscerally convinced of the sheer barbarity of what I had just mentally witnessed, at that moment, at the age of eleven, I became an arch opponent of capital punishment.

And yet, I confess, I have also always been fascinated by the perverse genius that imagines, creates, and deploys the engines of execution – and by these deadly engines themselves. I remember coming across a picture of a guillotine in The World Book encyclopaedia that my parents had just bought me – such an exquisitely ghoulish machine. And beside it a picture of the execution of Louis XVI, with the executioner waving the severed head before the tumultuous Parisian crowd. I remember the first time I saw the classic film The Oxbow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, with its dramatic conclusion, a lynching, in a clearing, at an oak tree, the rope thrown over the branch, the innocent yet condemned man sitting on a horse, and then hanging, kicking. And I remember coming across my first proper gallows in an old photograph of the execution of those who plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And then a photograph of “Old Sparky”, the electric chair in the New York Prison Sing-Sing. And that famous footage of the summary shooting, caught at the moment of the pistol-fire, of a Viet Cong suspect by a South Vietnamese officer. And, latterly, both clinical and eyewitness accounts of death by lethal injection. And on, and on, right up, to Michael Moore’s brilliant film Fahrenheit 9/11, where I saw my first public beheading-by-sword in a Saudi Arabian sports stadium of all places, “Dispatch of the Day”. And then the freak-show of the hanging of Saddam Hussein. And I would – do – always think what does the condemned man experience approaching his execution – calm resignation, petrifying fear, total despair? And the death itself – what does it feel like, the slice of the blade, the snap of the neck, the killer chemicals kicking in? And the onlookers – what on earth are they doing there? Are they not a more savage spectacle than the execution itself?

And then I become a Christian and – behold – I am introduced to the most exquisite method of execution ever devised by the perverse and sadistic mind of man: crucifixion. Invented by the ancient Persians, discovered and brought back to the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great, passed on to the Carthaginians, and finally picked up by the Romans, who innovated, modified, and perfected the form. If you want to see the whole grizzly process done in lurid colour and with all the latest digital technology, I would refer you to Mel Gibson’s abattoir of a film The Passion of the Christ.

But the whole point of crucifixion is not just to kill, and certainly, in contrast to the “progress” of more modern forms of execution, not to kill quickly: the whole point is the torture, relentless, prolonged torture, exploring new vistas of pain, extracting every drop of blood, and supplementing the agony with degradation and humiliation: tied to a post, scourging by flagellum, a whip of several heavy leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends, that break the skin, attack the tissue, and finally lead to massive arterial bleeding; the crown of thorns, not tiny pricks but massive spikes, forced into the scalp, one of the most vascular areas of the body; the exhausting final journey from prison courtyard to the place aptly called The Skull, bearing the cross-piece known as the patibulum, strapped to the shoulders, weighing in at over a hundred pounds, the local folk shouting abuse along the via dolorosa; and then at the site of execution, the wrought-iron nails, stakes, two driven not into the palms but the wrists, and, feet pressed together, another driven through the arch of each; and then the raising of the cross; and then, amidst searing heat, buzzing flies, mocking soldiers, and jeering crowds, the long, slow torment of dying – nail against nerve and bone, body fixed but contorted, cramp and paralysis, the struggle for breath, the final, doleful cry – death by exhaustion and asphyxiation.

Interestingly, however, quite unlike Gibson, Mark shows little interest in the physical agony of Jesus. Nor does the second evangelist share my morbid fascination with the psychology of execution. And, of course, his passion narrative is hardly a protest against capital punishment itself. No, Mark’s interest lies neither in the agony of the violence nor in the purveying of propaganda, but in the awful enigma of the cry of dereliction – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) – from the one who had always called God Abba, Father.

Throughout the 15th chapter of the gospel there are many allusions to Psalm 22, which begins with a pious poet crying out to God in pain, but ends with an exclamation of praise. And no doubt you have heard preachers claiming that it is in this context that we must understand Christ’s cry of dereliction: Jesus cannot really have felt abandoned by God, and a fortiori, he cannot really have been abandoned by God, rather he was citing the psalmist to cheer himself up, to bolster his confidence in a happy ending.

But, no! This is special pleading, as even Calvin recognised. Indeed it was Calvin’s deep insight into the cry of dereliction that it represents nothing less than Christ’s decent into hell itself, the place of ultimate, hopeless godlessness. Jesus does feel godforsaken, because indeed he is godforsaken. And why? Because of his complete identification and solidarity with those who themselves have forsaken God, i.e. with the godless, i.e. with his enemies and executioners. That is, Christ’s godforsakenness and human godlessness are but two sides of the same coin, as Jesus hangs in the place where the godless should be and willingly accepts godforsakenness as God’s just judgement on sin on our behalf. In other words, the utter depths of Christ’s godforsakenness are but the flipside of the sublime depths of his love for the godless, for the world, for the executed and for the executioner, for you and me. The Father loves us so much that he goes to this extreme: let my only Son die and go to hell, let a gulf, a chasm, an abyss open up in our relationship, let death itself be taken into my very being, into the very being of God.

But – to conclude – so what? The Son is dead. The Father grieves. The Spirit, the bond of their love, is broken. For us? For everyone? Do we really believe that? Perhaps we should just stick to a grim fascination with the execution, this execution of all executions, one that makes the gassing of Chessman, and the guillotining, hanging, electrocuting, shooting, injecting of countless other condemned people, guilty and innocent, seem like just another day at the office. And, of course, even a deicide has not stopped, for most of the world, the baleful work of business as usual.

So let’s stop there. Here endeth the sermon. But one thing. Humour me with a thought-experiment. For today ponder this execution in the light of all executions – and ponder all executions in the light of this execution. (And remember, Jesus was guilty as charged – sedition – and got what he deserved.) See what it does for you, see what it means to you, see if it may even change you, what you think about capital punishment, what you think about God and salvation. In any case, let Easter be not yet.

Good Friday in the media

For a special Good Friday broadcast, I was interviewed on ABC's Radio National – talking about Richard Dawkins, the death of Christ, and the meaning of atonement. You can listen to the programme here (my segment starts around 25:20). Alas, I can now add radio to the long list of things that I'm not very good at!

But elsewhere (and more eloquently) in the ABC, Scott Stephens offers a powerful critique of the recent Global Atheist Convention: Hillsong for the unbelievers.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Stations of the cross in Sydney

Yesterday I went to see the Stations of the Cross exhibition at St Ives Uniting Church in Sydney. It features 15 commissioned works (the 14 traditional stations, plus the resurrection) by some of Australia's leading visual artists. If you're in Sydney, you might like to go along and check it out – Easter Sunday is the last day of the exhibition.

My favourites (click to enlarge) include this triptych by Kevin McKay – this is the 13th station, where Jesus is taken down from the cross. The middle canvas is torn open:

After we viewed the exhibition yesterday, I gave a short impromptu reflection on this work. The outstretched hand of God has become the lifeless hand of Adam. A little ladder leans against the cross. The ladder, like the cross – and like the painting itself – is our own handiwork. Silent and bereft, we wait to receive the dead god into our arms. And at the heart of all things is a gaping wound. As the spear rends Christ's side, the very fabric of creation is torn open. This wound is the world's healing. It is the opening through which God's glory shines into the world. As Leonard Cohen sings: "There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

Here's another triptych from the exhibition. This is Euan McLeod's depiction of the 9th station, where Jesus falls:

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