Friday, 31 December 2010

Some 2010 highlights

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

Best albums

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

Best films

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

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

Best TV shows

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

Best books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas clerihews

by Kim Fabricius

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

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

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

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

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

Emperor Augustus
Banned coitus interruptus
To make his census
Immensus.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Art for advent: Banksy's crucifix

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


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

Monday, 20 December 2010

Christmas sermon: A PowerlessPoint Presentation

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Witness: a short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 December 2010

The street preacher

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Job: New Testament lecturer

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

Saturday, 4 December 2010

The disappearance of friendship

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

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

Friday, 3 December 2010

Luke Bretherton in Sydney

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

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

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Barth blog conference: third week

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

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

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

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

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

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

Dad: Um... what happened?

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

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

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

Dad: The monster was wearing a hat?

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

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

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

Dad (smiling): Oh, that sounds nice!

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

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

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

Dad: So you want the bedroom door open tonight?

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

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

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

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

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