Monday, 30 August 2010

What are arms for?

My five-year-old daughter wants to be an artist. Or to be more precise, she would tell you that she is an artist: this is the first piece of information you'd get, maybe after she tells you her name. From dawn to dusk she can happily do nothing but sit and draw: dozens of pictures, hundreds of them, reams of paper cramming the drawers and cupboards. She could draw us out of house and home. They turn up everywhere. I pull down some obscure 19th-century novel from the shelf, and likely as not I'll find a little bookmark inside, some improbable drawing that she's planted there, hidden away for its uncertain day of discovery – or never found at all, it's all the same to her. When I'm away, I call her on the phone and she gives me breathless reports on the day's drawings. She lives for drawing: she breathes in air and breathes out pictures.

Yesterday while I was playing with her at the park, she fell and broke her arm. We didn't get a wink of sleep all night: she lay in the bed next to me tossing and turning and crying, wanting me to stroke her arm – but without touching it. She asked for a story, so in the dark I told her a long somnolent story about a Russian prince who disguised himself as a pauper and went out one winter afternoon to see how the townspeople live. The prince walked from his palace into the hustle and bustle of the town, and no one recognised him. But he wasn't used to the big streets, the mud, the slick black pools of ice on the ground, and he slipped in the road and broke his arm. The people in the cold street rushed to help him. A man in a huge coat took him back to a little house down the lane, and made him lie down while the man's wife tore one of their sheets and bound his arm. Then she fussed over him and brought him hot stew and a big piece of hard stale bread, and implored him to stay the night with them. It was the smallest house the prince had ever seen: smaller than just one of the great wardrobes in the palace. It was damp and musty with low ceilings (not a single chandelier), one tiny kitchen window, and a few pieces of small plain hard-edged furniture. They made up a bed for the prince beside the kitchen. It was hardest mattress he had ever known, and the thinnest blanket too. But the fire in the stove was warm and good, and a light snow was falling outside; before long the prince had closed his eyes, and he never slept better in his life (broken arm and all). In the morning he went on his way, stepping very gingerly on the icy road. The man and his wife never learned the identity of their guest that night; in fact, they soon forgot all about him. The prince never saw them again either. But as the years passed, from time to time they would wake on a Sunday morning and find – to their never-ceasing puzzlement and surprise – that someone had pushed open the kitchen window and slipped something on to the sill. A silver coin, or some cheese, or a parcel of fine meats, or, once, a single yellow flower, bright and strange and welcoming as sunlight in the room.

When the story was finished, there was a long silence. Relieved, I thought she had finally fallen asleep. But then at last she erupted with an enormous sob, and said: "But it's my drawing arm... I won't be able to draw!"

Have you ever broken a limb – as an adult, I mean? In the same situation, you or I would be worrying about the loss of utility: how will I drive? how will I shower? how will I cut my food? But little Anna sees her arm for what it really is: not a useful tool but a boundless aesthetic resource, a limber extension by which shapeless nature and wild chaotic imagination are disciplined into form. The arm is the mind's pencil, the heart's crayon; it is an instrument not of work but of making. One needs it because one needs (every day) to draw the world into being. If one also occasionally uses the arm to brush one's teeth, then so much the better: it is a happy coincidence, a side-effect of the fingers' capacity to grasp a pencil.

So lying in the dark while my daughter wrestled with her pain, that awful bone-cracking discovery of an inhospitable world, I found myself praying. Not just for relief from the pain, or for sleep, but also (and especially) for her tremendous intuition about what her little limbs are for – what she is for. May her arm still ache to draw the day the cast comes off. May she never grow satisfied with the tawdry three-dimensional drabness of this world. May she always long to colour it, to flatten it into shape, to bring forth those bustling graphite landscapes where all the birds smile knowingly and children's faces stretch out wide from ear to ear, straining to contain the enormous shining bubbles of their eyes.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Rowan Williams: writing as discovery

Rowan Williams, discussing the process of writing:

"Something which will be familiar to anybody who has ever tried to do serious writing ... is the sense in which you only discover what you have to say in the doing of it. Saunders Lewis, the Welsh poet, used to quote somebody saying – a child saying – 'How do I know what I think until I see what I say?' and I have always resonated rather with that. And that means that for me in writing even a straight forward prose essay or a short book or a lecture, there is that awkward moment when ... the engine is turning over a bit and you are wondering exactly at what point you are going to discover what the argument is. That's a warning really about the first four pages of everything I have ever written!

"Writing isn't translating something in here onto the page. Writing is an act. If it were just transference, no doubt you could plug in the electrodes and something would neatly type up what was going on inside your head.... Writing is an act, it is an action of self-discovery and an action of trying to put something into being."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Flannery O'Connor on writers

Some timeless wisdom from Flannery O'Connor, on creative writing courses: "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them" (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 84).

People are drawn to creative writing courses because of an urge to express themselves, to unburden themselves of their deepest feelings. But self-expression is the deadly enemy of fiction. It is a thick bog in which the capacity for fictional imagination is captured and drowned: thus the need for universities to exercise preemptive stifling.

If self-expression attracts people to fiction-writing while simultaneously killing off the object of study, might there be any rough equivalents in theological study? Does our own discipline need a bit of preemptive stifling once in a while?

Friday, 20 August 2010

On theology and friendship

Thomas Mann once said that a writer is simply someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

I wonder if this insight could also be extended into theology. Theologians are people for whom the Christian faith is especially difficult, incomprehensible, infuriating. As a rule they are not especially talented or spiritually adept individuals. They are people whose minds have been hurt by God, and they are restlessly searching for – what? Healing perhaps, or catharsis? To expect so much from the study of theology would be futile or even dangerous. At any rate there is no lack of opportunities for theological catharsis: often our worship services seem calculated to remove the difficulty of believing, to make God easy and accessible, more a cure than a wasting sickness.

Perhaps then we should define theologians like this: They are people for whom even the Christian worship service does not provide adequate catharsis of the hurtfulness of God.

That is why, as a general rule, you should try to show kindness to theologians. Not because they are necessarily exemplary personalities. Not because they necessarily know what they're talking about. Not because they are necessarily people of great faith. Instead, you should show them kindness because their faith is so weak and so vulnerable; because they are burdened by the difficulty of God; because they are driven to think about God the way some people are driven to drink. You should take care of your theologians the way you would care for the widow and the orphan.

Jürgen Moltmann has somewhere remarked: "We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God."

This does not mean theology takes place under conditions of God's absence. We "miss God" in the world only because God is revealed in the world, only because God is so devastatingly near. It is in the company of an intimate friend that one experiences the true depths of loneliness. Theology springs from the joy and the loneliness of God's nearness.

Thus one of the proper goals of theology is not so much spiritual catharsis or intellectual mastery – clearing up every difficulty so that one can sleep at night – as the cultivation of theological friendships. Friendship sustains the difficulty of thinking about God. I warm myself by the fire of a friend's loneliness. God is near, and so we are lonely for God. Friendship is the small room in which we share together the loneliness and the joy of God's nearness.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Article on theology and blogging

My paper on blogging is available now, "Theology 2.0: Blogging as Theological Discourse", Cultural Encounters 6:1 (2010), together with a brief response by Robb Redman. The journal has kindly made the article available for free download: you can get it here [221 KB].

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Gelato word cloud

The next scoop of the gelato story should be available soon. In the mean time, here's a word cloud of the story so far:

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Audio talks on God and evil

I recently mentioned some talks I gave on God and evil. Although it looks like the quality is pretty poor, they've now uploaded the audio recordings.

And since I began the talks with Milton, I leave you with the timeless words of A. E. Housman:

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Isaiah Berlin on writing

Since we've had a bit of an Isaiah Berlin theme lately, I thought I'd continue the sporadic series on writing with some of Berlin's observations about writing. Thanks to Kim Fabricius for sending me the following two quotes from Michael Ignatieff's intellectual biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Vintage 2000):

"The problem was that Isaiah hated writing. As he confessed to a friend, spoken words vanish and no responsibility lingers; and one is freed from these embarrassing witnesses of one's momentary states'. Writing meant taking responsibility, and he avoided responsibility of any kind" (pp. 175-76).

And, pricelessly: "If anything, his self-doubt as an intellectual had grown with the years. As he confessed to a correspondent in 1963, 'I have not the slightest faith in anything I write myself. It is exactly like money – if you make it yourself, it seems a forgery'" (p. 262).

Of course while Berlin did not like writing, he was a famously gifted conversationalist and extempore lecturer; someone once described him as the world's greatest talker. If you're interested, you can see a great example of this in his videotaped conversation with Stuart Hampshire.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Gelato ethics, part 3

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2

Here is Angelo Papini, padding lightly across the room at dawn so as not to wake his sleeping wife. Here he is shaving over the little chipped sink and bending to wash his face. His clothes are neatly pressed and hanging on the old brass hook on the bathroom door. He dries his hands on the towel and walks down the hall to the kitchen and puts the coffee on the stove. Still in his slippers, he goes outside to get the morning paper from the porch. He stands a moment while the frosty Melbourne air stings his face and he breathes deep and looks at the sky. Clusters of damp pistachio-grey clouds crowd around the edges of the day. It will be damp again and sunless, Angelo Papini sees: not a good day for selling gelato.

In the life of Angelo Papini there are three great loves: his daughter Julia, his gelato shop, and an old red faded delta kite. Seven days he works the little shop, rising at dawn to make his gelato and closing the doors long after dark. Sometimes after closing on Sunday afternoons, if the weather is right he drives two miles to Royal Park and stands on the grassy hill with his kite glancing from side to side in the sunlight and the long white tails fluttering breathlessly in the wind.

Angelo Papini returns to the kitchen with his paper. He pours the coffee and makes a thick slice of toast. He spreads the toast with his wife’s grapefruit jam and sits at the little round table with his breakfast and his paper. He notices the dirty plates and coffee cups on the kitchen bench. Julia must have been up late last night. Sometimes she stays up reading and writing. He wishes she would not work so late.

Julia is the cleverest person Angelo Papini has ever known. She is doing a PhD. She will be a doctor, a professor, she will give lectures and write books and have her own office in the university. Her name will be on the door, just think of it! Angelo Papini never finished high school, nor did any of his brothers. He never so much as dreamt that he would ever meet a person with a PhD. But Julia is startling, bright, inexplicable. She is writing a thesis, hundreds of pages, about a famous English philosopher named Isaiah Berlin.

After breakfast he reads the paper a little longer and shines his shoes. You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes, Angelo Papini has always thought so, and in twenty-six years he has never worked a day at the gelateria with dirty shoes. When they came here in 1966 his father did not have two pennies to rub together. He went out every day to look for work and came back every night looking stooped and sad. But he was never seen on the streets of Melbourne with scuffed shoes, he shined them every morning after breakfast; young Angelo Papini, the oldest son, saw all this.

Julia is finding it hard to write her thesis. At first when she talked about Isaiah Berlin her eyes would shine, big and bright like the high white windows in St Francis’ Church during a summer morning Mass. The talking made her light and beautiful, a kite dancing in sunlight: this is why Angelo Papini loves his daughter’s studies. Lately though she has stopped talking about Isaiah Berlin. She broods and locks herself away in her room. She has started smoking, though it made her mother cry. Angelo Papini used to ask about the writing – How is the writing? – and she always said it is going good, really good. One day he saw that this was a lie, so now he never asks her, never says a word about Isaiah Berlin. It must be hard to write, he can see that.

Angelo Papini pads back to the bathroom in his slippers. He dresses in his pressed clothes and combs back his hair. In the bedroom it is still dark. He takes the keys and wallet from his bedside drawer. At the back of the drawer, tucked down and safely hidden from sight, is a grey library book. The book is Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin. Apart from the morning paper, Angelo Papini has never been much of a reader.

With his wallet and keys, he walks back to the kitchen and pours a glass of orange juice. When Julia was young, she would come with him on Sundays and they would eat gelato in the park and fly the kite together. He drinks the orange juice standing in the kitchen.

A year ago, one Thursday afternoon on his way back from the markets, he drove to the library and asked to borrow a book by Isaiah Berlin. Late at night when everyone was sleeping, he propped his pillow up and read The Hedgehog and the Fox by the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He read a page or two at a time; he had to borrow the book six times in a row. He could not comprehend The Hedgehog and the Fox, and when he had finished it he borrowed Four Essays on Liberty. As long as he lives, Angelo Papini will never tell another person that he has read Isaiah Berlin.

Early yesterday morning, as he prepared the day's gelati, he found himself thinking about Isaiah Berlin. He added the sugar and thought: Does this mean we are free to go it alone, to make whatever we want of our lives? He mixed in the cream and thought: Does a person have such power over his life? He added the coffee and thought: Can a kite be free if no one holds the line? With a groan of dismay, Angelo Papini saw that he had ruined the whole batch of caffè gelato. He had not been concentrating. He chided himself. Isaiah Berlin can be left to brighter people, people like Julia: his job is to make gelato.

He sits at the small round table and pulls on his socks and shoes. He looks at his watch. There are still ten minutes before he has to leave. He takes the dishes to the sink and rinses them. Glancing towards Julia’s room, he is surprised to see her bedroom light on. She is not usually up early. He puts the coffee on again and walks to her room.

When Julia graduated from her Honours year, Angelo Papini was the proudest of all the fathers at Melbourne University. He took the whole family to dinner – all Julia’s uncles and aunts and cousins – and boasted loudly, bellowing happiness, the praises of his genius daughter. And they have invited her to do a PhD! What a life she will have! She will be a doctor, a professor! My daughter! Silently later that night, lying beside his sleeping wife, Angelo Papini wept – with pride, yes, but also something else, shapeless and big and desolate. He did not know how to name this feeling even to himself. He would think about it only one other time in his life, on that clean bright summer morning four years from now when, like a kite string in strong wind, the secret knot inside his chest pulled suddenly tight, and the steel gelato container clattered across the floor and he lay for several seconds staring at the ceiling in the stark unblinking light. During those last seconds, Angelo Papini would think about three things: the morning many years before when his wife’s neck smelled of fresh baked bread as they made love in their little kitchen; the day Julia had flown her first kite, ribbons of chestnut hair streaming behind her as she skipped and laughed and ran beneath the sun; and the way she had looked at him, seeing him stranded there amidst so great a crowd, the night she graduated.

He knocks gently at Julia’s door. She opens the door. She is still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes are shot and tired, the colour of blood orange. The wild knot of her hair has collapsed and straggles down around her face. The bedroom floor is strewn with the wreckage of her studies, books and notes and papers and unknown crumpled things. The air is thick and stale with cigarette smoke. For a moment when she sees him she looks distant, confused. Then she rubs her eyes and says, I've been writing.

He kisses his daughter and asks if she wants coffee. She follows him out to the kitchen. Angelo Papini pours two cups of strong black coffee. They sit and drink at the little kitchen table. She tells him about Isaiah Berlin.

Never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount

Sorry it's been so long since my last round-up post. Some of these links are from a while back now, but still well worth checking out:

Friday, 6 August 2010

Choosing ice cream: the gelato girl responds

This is the gelato girl's response to my post on The Ethics of Ice Cream

So I’m just getting to the end of my shift – I don’t mean the bookstore, that’s weekends: on Thursday I help out at dad’s shop. I’m nearly finished for the night, and this guy walks in, all loud and scruffy, waving his arms and talking pell-mell with some other guy, on and on and on, while I’m standing there smiling like a dumbass waiting for them to order.

Twenty minutes till I’m out of here. I hope dad arrives early, I’m dying for a smoke. Typical Thursday: splitting headache, feet are killing me, fingers puffy and numb from six hours scooping gelato. I'm meeting my supervisor in the morning. Starting to panic. She thinks I’m losing my grip on the thesis – she doesn’t say it, but I can tell she thinks it.

Finally this guy stops talking and looks my way – he could really use a haircut; reminds me of one of my dying tomato plants at home, all dry and weedy – so I ask if he’d like to try a sample. Oh yes, he says. You should see him then: hands behind his back, leaning over, staring wide-eyed like he’s never laid eyes on a tub of ice cream in his life.

My supervisor knows I've been stalling, finding ways to avoid her. I cancelled our appointment twice in a row, told her I’m writing – always writing, yes yes, it’s really coming together – but of course I've got nothing, niente, not a single word.

Dad would flip if he found out. He’d throw his arms out like Jesus Christ Almighty and bellow “The fees!” while mum would be crying before you can say P-h-D, moaning “Every cent your father gave you – and this is how you repay us!” In dad’s eyes, every bloody vat of gelato is a down payment on my glorious future. Putting me through uni, building my career one sticky scoop at a time. Not that you can get much of a career out of a philosophy PhD. “The Ontology of Political Liberty in Isaiah Berlin.” I’ll probably still be working here – they can pin the degree up on the wall beside the coffee machine.

I can't believe this guy, he’s still examining the flavours one by one. If he had a magnifying glass, he’d look like Sherlock Holmes at the scene of a crime. God I really need a smoke. I tell him the melon is great, just to hurry him up. I offer him a sample and he says “Yes please, I’ll try the melon and the bacio.” So I tell him he’s only allowed one sample – and now he goes all serious on me, starts explaining that he can never make up his mind about anything unless he has at least two options. Jeez, get a life. I give him a nice smile, try to calm him down. I tell him I’m sure he’ll like the melon, freshly made this morning. He seems confused, mumbles something about choice, but I give him the taste.

After our last cancelled appointment, she got all cold and serious. She wants to see what I’ve written this year. “I want to see it, Julia,” she said all stiff and Sydney-like, her lips as thin and pale as lemon sorbet. I promised I’d give her the whole chapter – you know, the one I’ve been talking about all year, on Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty. So here I am, Thursday night, smiling and handing out gelato and hanging for a smoke and so sick with worry that I have to pray I won’t throw up all over the rum and raisin.

Apparently Mr Tomato Plant doesn’t like the sample, now he’s begging for another one. Honestly, some people have no self-respect. He tells me it’s impossible to make a proper choice unless he has more options. I can’t give out any more samples, but I tell him I think he'll like the chocolate. Everyone likes chocolate. But no, it’s not good enough for him. I’m looking at the clock wondering when I can get the hell out of here, and he launches (I'm not making this up) into this lecture, oh so patient and superior, explaining why there’s some kind of logical inconsistency in giving out only one sample blah blah blah. Who is this guy anyway? Probably a washed-out school teacher. Does he even have any money, I’m starting to doubt it, or does he just want to stand here all night arguing about samples?

I think I’ll need a good strong coffee before I leave. If I start writing as soon as I get home, who knows, I might have something by morning. A whole chapter by tomorrow morning? Who am I kidding. What am I going to do. What am I going to tell her? I mean it’s not as if I’ve been slack. All I ever do is read read read, tucked away in the library, burying my bedroom in index cards and articles and sticky notes. My life's a merry-go-round of positive and negative liberty, individual and collective interests, value pluralism and conflicting values, self-determination and necessary conditions of non-interference...

I can’t believe this guy: he must have seen I wasn’t paying any attention to the lecture, so now he’s switched tactics. Big puppy dog eyes, little melancholy smile. Can you believe he’s actually trying to flirt with me now? For a taste of gelato? Dio caro, I feel like giving it to him just to get rid of him. How can I type tonight with these swollen fingers? “I’m sorry, I really can’t give you another sample – what if we did it for everyone?” They'll never pay off my fees if we start giving gelato away for free. I don’t even know what the chapter’s meant to be about anyway. I could start by saying that Berlin’s work is misunderstood whenever negative liberty is isolated from his analysis of values, especially situations of conflict between incommensurable values. That would be something – it would be a start. Finally! He’s gone all sour and sulky, but he’s finally chosen a flavour: wasn’t so hard now, was it. I scoop up the caffè gelato for him. Maybe two strong coffees will help get me started, after oh God a smoke. He gives me five dollars. I could start by saying that Berlin’s analysis is very pertinent today, when the idea of freedom is more and more viewed through the prism of consumer choice. The caffè flavour’s no good today – dad spoiled the batch, but there was no time to start again – but I'm not breathing a word, gimme a break it’s only gelato. He takes the cup and spoon. Oh I know, I’ll start the chapter with Quentin Skinner’s reading of the Two Concepts, that'll be a good opening. I hand him fifty cents change. Skinner, then Hayek, then right into Berlin. He turns to go, but then surprises me with a short, shy smile, almost as though – as though he’s grateful to have just one flavour instead of all the samples. He holds my eye a moment, then walks out in the night with his cup of bad gelato.

At last dad arrives to close the shop. I stand out front and smoke a cigarette. Dad brings me coffee in a paper cup, black and strong the way I like it. There's a cold wind in the street. I button my coat. It won’t be morning for another twelve hours.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Nate Kerr on the radio

While Nate Kerr was in Sydney a few weeks ago, he was interviewed for an ABC radio programme on the future of the church. It's an excellent, theologically substantive interview – you can listen to it here.

When I played the interview at home, my little two-year-old boy said gleefully, "It's Nate!" And then he added, with a frown of frustration: "But I want to touch Nate." I'm sure you'll feel the same way.

And now something for the kids

New book

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