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.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Twelve point guide for ripostes to militant atheists

by Kim Fabricius

—Your faith is unreasonable.
—Your reason is unreasonable – and you have such faith in your scepticism.

—So, you’ve had a religious experience?
—What’s that? And what’s it got to do with God?

—The Gospels contain inconsistencies A, B, and C.
—You forgot X, Y, and Z.

—Darwin made the argument from design completely untenable.
—Er, Hume beat him to it.

—Creationists are morons.
—That smart?

—Theodicies are invariably unconvincing.
—Worse than that, they are inherently evil.

—Prayer plainly doesn’t work.
—Thank God!

—Religion is the opium of the people; it’s a crutch.
—Yeah, but science and technology are the crack cocaine; and you don’t limp?

—Who can believe in a God who sends his Son to die to appease his anger?
—Only the seriously disturbed.

—Religion is inherently violent.
—You mean violence is inherently religious.

—Give me one good reason to believe in the existence of God.
—The existence of atheists: the protest kind because they take God seriously, the petulant kind because God doesn’t take them seriously at all. Oh, and more conclusively: cats and baseball.

—You’re a fucking fool!
—Alas, you’re half right.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

More from the Barth blog conference

The second week of the Karl Barth blog conference is underway. This week's posts are:

Monday, 11 October 2010

On writing: thirteen theses

1. Writing and the fall. Angels have no need of writing – though Goethe’s Mephistopheles is a writer. Jesus left behind no writings; nor did the Buddha. ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.’ Writing is for the fallen, for the soul cast out of paradise and lonely to return. When our first parents took the apple, God killed an animal and clothed them. Words are the bloody skins stitched together to cover our mysterious theological shame. In the shadows behind every book lie the skinned remains of some dead thing; its smell lingers in the library and in the writer’s study.

2. Kinds of writing. There are four kinds of writing: bad, mediocre, good, and great. The difference between bad writing and mediocre writing is discipline. The difference between mediocre writing and good writing is editing. The difference between good writing and great writing is miracle.

3. Writing and editing. T. S. Eliot once observed that good writers do not necessarily write better than others, but are better critics and editors. Good writers cull the overpopulated paragraphs of their work. Like a farmer protecting the livestock, the writer lovingly separates whatever is sickly and infirm – and then loads the gun.

4. Writing and discipline. The self has a tendency to leak and dribble. Left to itself, it loses all definition, becomes a shapeless puddle. Writing, like ritual, is a cast into which the self is poured. Writing is care of the self. ‘He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem’ (Milton). A book is a few seconds of inspiration plus a few years – or a lifetime – of discipline. You cannot have a campfire without the first spark, but the spark is useless without the slow labour of gathering wood, building the fire, and maintaining it when it begins to die.

5. Writing and patience. Annie Dillard notes that some people can write quickly – just as some people lift cars, eat cats, or enter weeklong sled-dog races: ‘There is no call to take human extremes as norms.’ A person who could write a page every day would be one of the most prolific writers in the world – even if half those pages had to be thrown away. Writing is slow because truth is shy. You can’t get close to truth all at once, but only by a protracted exchange of fumbling gestures, awkward silences, and tentative questions and replies. The patience of the writer is the moral complement to the shyness of truth.

6. Writing and jealousy. Like cleaning your ears or picking your nose, writing is something best done in private. All writing is solitary. Even collaborative efforts are stitched together from smaller, lonelier units. All sorts of things – in fact, most of the things that really matter – must be excluded in order to write. Like a drawn bowstring, the writer draws back from the world in order to pierce it more forcefully. The selfishness of the writer is jealousy for truth.

7. Writing and kenosis. To the extent that the writer is not merely selfish but jealous, writing becomes a practice of true selflessness. The novelist creates a character through generosity and kenosis: he withholds his own agenda, silencing his own voice to make room for the voice of the character. Writers erase themselves to let something else be.

8. Writing and death. The biggest difference between today's writing and the writing of the past is that writers are no longer put to death. Writers nowadays could never dream of having to die for what they have written. Even if writerly execution was not always common, the possibility of death was implicit in every act of writing. The zone within which writers worked was marked out by this juridical possibility. But in the West today there is no writing for which a person could conceivably be executed. This alters the whole nature of scholarly inquiry. It is also partly responsible for the bloodless mediocrity of most contemporary writing.

9. Writing and life. The widespread notion that life is more important than writing – as though writing were something I do when I’m not really living – owes much to this modern abrogation of the threat of death. To distinguish between writing and living betrays a deep misunderstanding not only of what it means to write but also of what it means to live. My happiest childhood memories are of sitting alone writing stories: was I writing, or living? The division is not only false but also heretical, since for Christians (as for others) the secret of life is disclosed in a canon of writings. Yet this heretical distinction is perpetrated whenever Christians expect their writers to leave aside their labour with words in order to do something more ‘practical’. St Paul describes his letter to the Galatians not as a secondary description of the reality of the gospel, but as gospel itself, God’s own personal speaking in the world. If there is any distinction between life and writing, it is only that writing is (or can be) a particularly intensified form of living. The same sunlight falls across the café window and the magnifying lens: the only difference is the smoke.

10. Writing and truth. The purpose of writing, says Wendell Berry, is ‘to keep our language capable of telling the truth’. All the daily problems, obstacles, and difficulties of writing – even the most pedantic labours over syntax and punctuation – are reducible to the problem of truth. All writing is lying, as Samuel Beckett often observed. But writers want to lie their way into the truth, to vaccinate themselves against falsehood by injecting it right into the bloodstream. The real business of writing is the identification of difficulties, problems, and falsehoods. This is why suicide is especially prevalent among writers: problem-detection is a disheartening line of work. Like a sad clown forced to go on smiling, the writer continues using words even in face of the immense unspoken sadness of truth.

11. Writing and thought. I write not because I know but because I want to know. Among scholars today, there is no error more pervasive than writerly Docetism. The Docetic heresy divides idea from style; it is the belief that one can have clear thoughts regardless of the clarity of their expression, or that one first has an idea which is subsequently communicated through the neutral medium of prose. But between idea and form there is a mystical union of natures; to write well is to think well. Language is not the external adornment of thought. It is thought itself, the blood and tissue of the idea.

12. Writing and God. Did the Hebrew prophets write in order to record their experiences of God? Did those experiences not rather occur in the act of writing itself? Would it have made any sense for them to distinguish the revelation of Yahweh from the stuff of language? Did they not find the face of Yahweh pressed suddenly against their outstretched fingertips as they groped their way blindly through the doorway into the dark house of language? The tightly knotted bond between God and language is the secret truth of all writing. According to the Zohar, one binds oneself to God by learning to write God’s Name, since the Name of God is the being of God. Writing and religion alike bubble up from this hidden primeval fountain of theological magic.

13. The end of writing. According to Gershom Scholem, some Jewish mystics taught that on the last day God will annul the Torah: all the letters will stay the same, but God will rearrange them into a completely different combination, a new-yet-identical script. This is the ecstatic telos of all writing. It is the promise for which writing waits: to be simultaneously deciphered and erased, transposed from human words into tongues of angels, burned up but not consumed in the violent conflagration of the Word.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Ask Hauerwas and Milbank a question

At King's College on 18 October, Luke Bretherton will be hosting a public conversation with Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. The event will launch Hauerwas' new memoir, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans/SCM 2010).

So anyway, Luke Bretherton has asked for some input from the F&T community: If you had Hauerwas and Milbank together in a pub, what question would you ask them to discuss together? And what questions do you think they should ask each other about their work?

Post your suggestions in the comments below – the best ones will be included on the night. The event will also be recorded and made available as a podcast.

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