Monday, 28 February 2011

Doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Experience has taught me that prayer is often a way to be narcissistic with both a good conscience and public approval.

Koan: a minister who has no time for theology.

There are Christians who reject universalism not because it is unbiblical but because, were it true, it would disappoint them.

Gehenna eternal hellfire? What a load of rubbish!

“What would Jesus do?” He’d say that’s a dumb question.

Show me a happy Christian mourner and I’ll show you a Christian who reads a crappy translation of the Beatitudes.

Before Constantine the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church; after Constantine the seed of the martyrs was the blood of the church.

It is urgent that the sacraments and church order remain atop the ecumenical agenda; killing each other, however, may remain AOB.

What Christians who repeat the mantra that they “hate the sin but love the sinner” really mean is that they hate the sinner but love the sin.

Logos asarkos: Cheshire Cat Christology.

Arminianism: standing on the plate and thinking you’ve hit a homerun.

Christian Zionism: Philosemitic anti-Semitism.

If the eucharist makes the church, perhaps we need a different vintage.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – except at Horeb.

Is theology the queen of the sciences? Only if it’s queer.

Of course Oscar Romero should be canonised. It’s a post-mortem miracle that he hasn’t been anathematised.

Why do I believe in God? Why do I love my children?

If a politician talked sense, we would not understand him.

Discombobulate a good preacher: compliment him.

Advice to a young minister: learn to yes without bitterness and no without guilt.

If your faith doesn’t make you both kinder and angrier, you’ve lost it.

What is the opposite of love? Some say hate. Some say indifference. Some say fear. Love does not have an opposite. What is the opposite of God?

Prosperity Gospel Jesus: “I am the Alpha and the Romeo.”

Young people want to be “famous”. Instead of vocation, an adjective.

Chimpanzees can learn sign language; humans can study theology.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Theology FAIL: Chuck Colson's doctrinal boot camp

Evangelical leader (and former tough-as-nails US Marine) Chuck Colson wrote a Christianity Today piece on "Doctrinal Boot Camp", where he argues that catechesis for "younger evangelicals" should be modelled on the Marines. Apparently what the church really needs is more psychological brainwashing, self-abnegating conformity, and absolute unquestioning obedience. He relates a conversation with another former Marine:

I asked him about younger evangelicals who believe that we oldsters aren't being sensitive enough to their concerns. ‘Can you imagine,’ he asked, ‘what would happen if a scruffy young recruit were to tell his Marine drill instructor at Parris Island that he ought to be more sensitive to his needs?’ We both chuckled, knowing what would happens to the poor recruit. If he survived, he'd be doing 100 pushups a day for weeks.
Grrrr, we youngsters just hate it when former Marines chuckle together about our theological naivety! Anyways, David Congdon has issued a blistering response to this ecclesiastical legalism. He writes:
The commanding authority that Colson sees as the analogue of the drill sergeant is not Jesus or God, but rather the church. It is the authority of the church, not the authority of Christ, that demands our formal, blind obedience. Colson’s theology is the deification of the church, and thus the deification of a particular cultural form. Despite his best intentions, the gospel on such an account is simply propaganda.
Although David's argument is an excellent response, I'd also be intrigued to see a church where the minister really does address the congregation like this (maybe I'll try this in one of my theology classes too):



Now that I think of it, there is one minister who achieves a Marine-like theological severity – the fabulous Mitchell and Webb vicar. Maybe this guy was Chuck Colson's inspiration:

Monday, 21 February 2011

Curls: a short story

For J. M.

There was once a man whose scalp was blighted by an appalling shock of red curls. He had suffered from this condition ever since the first nurses had poked their heads over the edge of his crib beneath the glaring lights, tickling his tummy and saying, “My oh my, would you just look at that hair!” His mother dressed him in an array of hideous orange costumes while he blew bubbles of spittle and flailed his arms about in protest (he tried to undo the buttons and remove the clothes, but could never quite keep his infant hands steady: trying to control them was like chasing a pair of rabbits), and all the neighbours came by to say, “Well halloo dair liddle bubbyboy, oooh aren’t your wittle curls so adoowable, awww and lookit your bootiful wittle itty-bitty owange outfit, ooh wittle schmooky-poochie-poo, aren’t you jes so pwetty, yes, coochie-coochie-coochie-coo.”

He was disgusted by the attentions of these women, the slobbery humiliations of their lipsticked advances, their plump bejewelled fingers jabbing his ribcage, their wobbling jowls looming over him like a German airship, and above all their rambling rhapsodic homilies about his hair. He tried to ward them off, waving his arms furiously, but that only seemed to draw them like flies to a honey pot. He tried to frighten them away, howling and screaming and kicking like a mule, but then they only redoubled their efforts, stroking and cajoling him, or even scooping him up and flinging him over the vertiginous heights of their shoulders, or squashing him against their intolerable dry breasts while they sighed and crooned, wobbling about in the throes of a frightening and ludicrous dance.

But he was a kind-hearted fellow, even at that age, and he never once blamed all this on the incorrigible women, or on his unfaithful mother who had let them into the house. No, he laid the blame right where it belonged: on that abomination of curls that perched upon his head, turning his pale face into a gleaming beacon, a round white road sign circled in red.

When he was five years old, the pretty little French girl and her ugly French parents moved in next door. He was madly, fiercely in love with her for exactly three minutes, from the moment she stepped out of the car into the sunlight, licking a strawberry paddle pop like a cat, until she walked over to him, brushed back the black fringe from her startling green eyes, and said, “Bonjour, how do you do, you must be my new neighbour, my name’s Juliette, I’m from Paris, that’s in France, do you like my new dress, I like your hair, what’s your name, are you a boy or a girl?” By the time the first few words had escaped her lips, he knew he was happier than he had ever been in his life; by the time she pronounced the lovely syllables of her name, he was preparing his marriage proposal and wondering how many children they should have; by the end of her speech, he hated her more than anyone he’d ever known, and instead of answering her impertinent question he screwed his face up like a ghoul, stuck out an angry pink tongue, gave her a good hard shove in the shoulder, and wiped his hand on the side of his shorts, exclaiming, “Eeeeew girls’ germs,” before scampering back inside like a frightened possum.

No, he never was a great ladies’ man, a fact that is hard to account for unless we put it down to that slithering snakepit upon his brow.

As far as hairdressing goes, his mother lacked the tools, the training, the experience, the eye for detail, and the even temper to ever really distinguish herself in that field. But she had a wooden stool, a pair of scissors, and a comb, and so, two or three times a year, she would take him out to the backyard and sit him down to cut his hair. To say he had mixed feelings about these episodes would be euphemistic. It is true that he had longed for nothing more than this, every day craving it, ever since those first malignant red squiggles had reasserted themselves above his ears. It is also true that there was nothing he dreaded more. For his own lifelong inability to sit still in one place for more than eight consecutive seconds produced catastrophic results when you combined it with his mother’s lifelong inability to tolerate anything that moans, mumbles, whines, whinges, and generally wriggles about as restless as a worm on a hook.

At the start of the Haircut – before everything escalated into a wild hurricane of snot and tears and murderous threats – he would plead with her, demanding that she cut off all the curls. “But I love your curls,” she would say. “Cut them off!” he would say. Oh how he longed for the soothing oblivion of baldness, the blithe anonymity of the short-back-and-sides! When it was all over, he would stand in the bathroom with the tap running, pretending to be brushing his teeth while he patiently scrutinised the shape of his head in the mirror, turning from side to side in a painstaking inspection, examining it from every angle to ensure that every last obnoxious question-mark had been eradicated.

He never learned much at school, since he was always preoccupied with more important things. During maths he drew cockatoos and clowns and dingos inside the cover of his book. During history he sketched designs for fighter planes and steam trains and spacecraft. During science (his favourite subject) he drew a tree, a fence, a rainwater tank, a windmill, the ruins of a farmhouse, and a pair of roos standing on a dirt road. During English he held his pocket knife in his lap and whittled his pencils into little sculpted figurines, or etched trains and cars on the brittle timber underbelly of the desk. At lunch time he could often be seen eating his Vegemite sandwich or kicking a soccer ball or playing marbles or glancing up at his reflection in an empty window and smoothing down the hair above his ears with furtive moistened fingers.

When he was twelve years old, there was one of those hot school sports days when all the swaggering boys scramble and sweat to outdo each other in the winner-takes-all race towards manhood, grunting, cursing, spitting, kicking dust, picking scabs, assembling in solemn huddles to compare the hairs on their legs and the shoes on their feet, hotly debating the secrets of semen and cigarettes, exchanging heroic autobiographical tales of sex and violence, determining which of the girls are wearing bras, which of the girls are wearing g-string panties, which of the girls are shaving their legs, which of the girls are shaving their armpits, which of the girls have the best tits. Then all of a sudden Mrs Nickles, the tuckshop lady, lurched over to where he stood amid a scrum of murmuring boys, ruffled his hair with her greasy tuckshop fingers, grimacing gleefully with her ghastly gold-toothed smile, and said (while all the boys sniggered behind their hands): “Gee whiz, such pretty curls, such a pity you’re not a girl.”

The next morning he stole five dollars from his mother’s purse, wagged school, and walked in drizzling rain to the barber shop, where he had his hair clipped short, as straight as knives.

Time passed, and somehow or other he pieced together a life for himself. He married a girl who worked at the bakery but dreamed all her life of working at the library; she wore blue-rimmed glasses, read the same six novels over and over, and knew the whole three hours of The Sound of Music by heart. The first time they made love, her skin smelt of bread and cinnamon; she draped her strapless floral dress over the chair and pulled him down on to the floor, and afterwards she ran her fingers through his hair, though he never knew it because by then he was asleep. Over time they acquired a house, a car, a black and white television with rabbit-ear antennas, a bed that her parents had given them, a garden that was always dying but never quite dead, a dog that dug up the garden and chewed up the bed, two cats that were hardly ever seen, and a son who scampered around the house beneath a tangled mop of luxuriant red curls.

On weekdays he wore a wide-brimmed cotton hat to work, and did not take it off again until he came through the front door at six o’clock. When he was not working, he assembled jigsaw puzzles and made leather bags and built his own transistor radio and subscribed to magazines about model trains. He replaced the back screen door, fixed up the bathroom, made wardrobes and bathroom cupboards, replaced the kitchen bench and the wiring on the oven, and built a little shelf beneath the bedroom window for his wife’s six novels. For his son, he built three wooden trains, six wooden puzzles (one of them so large and elaborate that it was never fully assembled), a castle with an opening portcullis and drawbridge, a jack-in-the-box with the painted face of a clown, two clown string puppets, a bed in the shape of a racing car with a movable door and leather pouches underneath for clothes and toys, a toolbox with sliding drawers and many small compartments, an abacus, a spinning top, a drum, a fire truck painted red with an electric flashing light, a tiny balsa wood yacht with a plastic sail and cotton rigging, and, out in the backyard beside the shed, a two-room cubbyhouse with miniature furniture, a miniature transistor radio, a little bookcase, a secret trapdoor in the kitchen floor, and a front veranda with little wooden deck chairs.

That is how he spent his weekends in the big garden shed, hammering and painting and sewing and stitching, while the boy looked on in silence or asked questions or scuttled around the floor scooping up bent nails and woodshavings and sticky globs of dried glue that sometimes got caught in his hair.

Then one hot December afternoon he grew tired of the wooden pirate finger puppets that he was making. He grew tired of The Sound of Music. He shouted at the boy and slammed a door. He took up smoking. He began to work late. The wooden pirate finger puppets languished unfinished on the workbench in the shed. And that was when he began to forget things.

Here are the things he forgot: he forgot to fix the bathroom tap, which dripped for four months; he forgot to fix the kitchen screen, and the flies and mosquitoes moved into the house; he went to the shop for bread and milk but came back with tinned peaches, or paper cups, or Swiss cheese, or insect spray, or tubes of toothpaste, or mosquito coils, or pickled onions, or plum jam, but no bread and no milk; he forgot to treat the dog for fleas, and they could hear its melancholy scratching in the night; he forgot why he had ever loved his wife, and she grew restless and dejected; he forgot to renew his magazine subscriptions, and finally forgot that he had ever loved the model trains with their tiny clockwork engines and their lovingly weathered landscapes.

There was also the time, one Saturday afternoon, when he tied his shoelaces and put on his hat and climbed on to the roof to clean the leaves from the gutters, and forgot to come down again for his three o’clock appointment at the barber. He forgot all the next day as well, and all the next week, and all the week after that.

Then one morning as he was rubbing his eyes and yawning and walking to the kitchen he caught a sudden sideways glance of himself in the hallway mirror. He stopped. He leaned forwards. He narrowed his eyes. He stared intently at the clusters of shy red ringlets springing out above his ears. He turned his head to one side, then the other, then back again. He walked into the kitchen, hands on hips, and stooped down to the place where his son sat playing with a painted wooden train. He frowned silently, his brow creased in concentration as he scrutinised the boy with the freckled round white face, the pink ears, and the frightful mess of curls. Then he went back to the mirror and looked again, frowning deeply.

And then, all at once, he remembered all the things he had forgotten.

Daylight fell slanting through the blinds across the floor as he marched back into the kitchen. He had never noticed it before, how much like his son he looked. There was no denying it: he was the spitting image of the boy.

He went out through the backdoor barefoot across the grass towards the garden shed. He stopped to wait for the boy to catch up, sunlit red mop bouncing as he ran. In the darkness of the shed, the half-made pirate finger puppets lay waiting. He hitched up his pants a little, rocked back on his heels a little, and raised his hand and ran five fingers slowly through his hair. Somewhere in the trees a bird had started singing. The grass was cool and wet beneath his feet. He looked down at his son. He felt, for the first time in his life, rather dashing.

Friday, 18 February 2011

TV series: Life's Big Questions

Speaking of irrepressible theologian-at-large Scott Stephens, his six-part Compass TV series, Life's Big Questions, is kicking off this Sunday night on ABC. Scott interviews a number of high-profile Australians and talks with them about their beliefs. The six episodes feature Matt Preston, Julian Morrow, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, Philip Nitschke, Clare Bowditch, and Rolf de Heer. You can see a preview here.

Scott has a terrific personality for television, and I've heard really good things about these interviews. It's great to see some genuine theological exploration finding its way onto the screen – so be sure to tune in to Compass on Sunday night, or download the episodes, or watch them streaming at ABC iView.

Oh, and speaking of the ABC, check out Martha Nussbaum's three posts on educating for profit versus educating for freedom:

Call for reviewers: Conor Cunningham

Scott Stephens is looking for someone to review Conor Cunningham's big new book, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Eerdmans 2010). Please email Scott if you're interested in receiving a copy and writing a 1500-word piece for the ABC Religion & Ethics site.

Monday, 14 February 2011

A Love Story

After their fourth date at bingo night, he untucked the napkin from his top shirt button, carefully returned the crumpled handkerchief to his pocket, pushed his glasses all the way up to the bridge of his nose, and inquired, squinting intently across the table in what might have been a gallant smile or might merely have been a stomach complaint, gastritis or pancreatitis or giardiasis, or just a touch of reflux or heartburn or indigestion, if she would like to take a turn around the rose garden. They went out together in the evening air and sat a while under the winking stars and the vine-tangled trellis and the heavy lovesick fragrance of the roses.

When their talk had stumbled into one of those cavernous silences, he began to fidget with the buttons on his shirt. He blew his nose. He scratched at something on his knee. He found some wax in his left ear. He coughed politely. He said, There’s something I’d like to tell you, though I’ve never told another soul.

She thought: Ah, and so it goes. She thought: There has been some scandal. She thought: He is a gambler. She thought: He is a homosexual. She thought: He is married, a Don Juan, a heartbreaker, a scoundrel. She thought: He is a war criminal, and they will take him away to jail. She thought: Oh my dear God, he is a Mormon.

He said: You see, it’s just that I – I never – well, you see, I never really read. I only buy books for the colours. They look so lovely, like flowers. I arrange them like my mother used to arrange bouquets of gardenias in the kitchen. But I never read them. Not a single page. Not anymore.

She said: My daughter says I love the opera. She always takes me. She got season tickets last year. Before the music starts I turn my hearing aids off. The silence, it’s just so, I don’t know, so – calm.

He said: When I get a new one, I always read the back, just in case someone asks about it. So I'll look like I’ve read it.

She said: Sometimes I even turn them off when my daughter comes to visit. My how that one prattles, she’s every inch her father.

He said: I cheat on the Sunday crosswords.

She said: It was me who drove my husband’s car into the pole. He was so sad, so disappointed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I said someone else must have done it while I was shopping. He went to his grave believing that, Lord rest him, poor dear sweet kind man.

He said: Some days when I wake up tired, I don’t have the strength to change my underwear. I slip a clean pair in the laundry basket so the nurses won’t know. They count them, you know. They’re watching everything, keeping records.

She said: Sometimes I can’t control my – you know, my – sometimes I think I might be a little – what's the word? – incontinent? The nurses all know. But I try to hide it all the same. I sometimes think it’s the worst thing about growing old.

He said: The bladder.

She said: Not specifically. Just the way I'm always so – embarrassed.

He said: I don’t really like the bingo. I just thought you’d enjoy it. I just wanted to be with you, that's all.

She said: Now that you mention it, I suppose I don’t really care much for bingo either. Not like I used to.

And then she smiled shyly, like a girl.

Beside the goldfish pond hedged with roses he took her hand, and, after a few fumbling false starts, squinting and panting from exertion, he pressed it to his lips. Their hands were still touching when the nurses wheeled them back up the path, side by side across the green lawn and into the common room, where one or two other residents looked up, blinking in surprise, as though for a moment they had caught a sudden faint scent of something sweet, like a summer garden or a house where children play or one of those milkbars with the big bright jars of six-a-penny lollies in the window.

Gifts: a love poem

Here's one of my favourite love poems, by the Australian Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonucal. In contrast to all the tedious, unimaginative hype that surrounds Valentine's Day each year, this poem portrays something quite wonderful and quite essential about the nature of romantic love:

Gifts

‘I will bring you love,’ said the young lover,
‘A glad light to dance in your dark eye.
Pendants I will bring of the white bone,
And gay parrot feathers to deck your hair.’

But she only shook her head.

‘I will put a child in your arms,’ he said.
‘Will be a great headman, great rain-maker.
I will make remembered songs about you
That all tribes in all the wandering camps
Will sing forever.’

But she was not impressed.

‘I will bring you the still moonlight of the lagoon
And steal for you the singing of all the birds;
I will bring down the stars from heaven to you,
And put the bright rainbow into your hand.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘bring me tree-grubs.’

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Boy and dog: an anecdote

My three-year-old son, Jamie, has a unique and fascinating relationship with our six-month-old Labrador puppy. Theirs is a deep personal sympathy, a spiritual affinity, a genuine meeting of minds. As far as I have been able to tell, they regard each other not as members of two different species but as peers and colleagues, intellectual equals, comrades in all of life's hilarity, mischief, and sadness.

Jamie has developed a number of independent theological and philosophical theories about his relationship to Kola. Though some of his conclusions might sound extravagant, he is completely in earnest, and I have never had any serious grounds to contest his claims. On various occasions he has put forward all of the following theses:

(1) That he himself was a dog in an earlier life, before becoming a human;
(2) That Kola was a human in an earlier life, before becoming a dog;
(3) That the two of them are twins (I take it he means spiritual twins, since their physical resemblances are not much to speak of, unless you count personal hygiene);
(4) That he is in fact secretly the dog, while Kola is secretly the human. The fact that each plays out the alternative role (Jamie speaking and using cutlery, Kola wagging a tail and chewing up the trampoline) is all just theatrics, an elaborate daily vaudeville for their own secret amusement.

Today there was a striking example of their curious spiritual affinity. Overcome by a sudden profound sadness, Jamie threw himself on the bed and exclaimed: “Kola doesn’t like me anymore.”

“Of course he likes you,” I said.

“No,” he insisted, “I saw from his mouth that he doesn’t like me.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said, “you know Kola loves you.”

But my poor troubled boy was resolute: “I saw from the writing on his tongue that he doesn’t like me anymore.”

I'm pretty sure – and I record it here for posterity – that Jamie is the first person in the history of the world to use this evocative metaphor of the writing on a dog's tongue. We speak of a person wearing his heart on his sleeve: in the same way, is not the heart of the dog rendered legibly on that eloquent pink papyrus, the slobbery scroll of the tongue?

The story did, however, have a happy ending. Twenty minutes later I asked Jamie about it again, and he shrugged the whole thing off: “Oh,” he said, “don't worry, Kola loves me. Sometimes he hates me for a second, then he loves me again.”

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

King James Bible: 400th anniversary

The most important thing that ever happened to me was when, as a little boy, I was made to memorise the twenty-third Psalm from the King James Bible. I've loved the Bible and the English language and the 17th century ever since. I still remember that moment of exhilarating shock as I heard my own voice pronouncing the strange intoxicating syllables for the first time: "my cup runneth over". Anyone who denies the connection between words and magic is a fool; all my life I've been reeling from the shock of that first moment, and I suppose the main business of my life has been the mystified repetition of those disorienting, homely syllables. (Disorienting only because they are so homely, because they are so much more familiar than anything I merely know.)

Although I tend half-grudgingly to use the NRSV and the Greek NT in formal ways (classes, sermons, etc), I always prefer to read the King James; and when I'm quoting from memory, it's usually from this version. Probably my favourite copy for general reading is the gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition (currently out of print), The Bible: Designed To Be Read As Literature. I admit this edition has a number of glaring deficiencies, but I still always find it a joy to read and handle: the thick sturdy paper, the lavish cloth binding, the big colour plates, the large Roman typeface, the single-column layout so that the text is encompassed by enormous fields of white, the omission of verse numbers (let's face it, all those numbers are vulgar and distracting: the holy prophets were poets and dreamers, not accountants), and most importantly the formatting of narratives into paragraphs and poetry into stanzas. The only real drawback of your typical King James Bible is the idiotic verse-by-verse layout: once you've turned them into paragraphs and stanzas, you're all set. If you can also get rid of all the numbers and double columns while you're at it, so much the better.

I must admit, I even enjoy listening to Alexander Scourby's legendary audio reading of the KJV – especially his marvellous performance of some Old Testament books. My only complaint against Scourby is the way the inflections of his voice were imitated by whoever was responsible for those bad American animated Bible stories that I was forced to watch as a defenceless little boy. If some Bible stories – the Battle of Jericho, for instance – still provoke a dull instinctive shudder in me; if I often find myself presupposing that God is basically angry, vindictive, self-righteous, and precise; then I blame it mainly on those cartoon episodes, and on the grimly homourless, lawyerly intonations of their American narrators.

Anyway, this year marks the 400th anniversary of the 1611 Bible, and there are stacks of interesting new publications to mark the occasion.

I'm especially excited about Oxford UP's King James Bible: 400th Anniversary Edition. It's not a facsimile, but it follows the 1611 text page-for-page and line-for-line, reproducing all misprints rather than correcting them, plus including all the original preliminary matter (genealogies, maps, lists of readings, etc). Looks like a huge, gorgeous, beautifully typeset edition.

The American-Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura has produced what looks like a stunning illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels (h/t Alan Jacobs). It's pretty expensive, though you can also get it as a cheap iPad app.

There are major new studies by Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 (Oxford UP) and David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford UP), as well as an edited collection by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones, The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge UP). You can see a review of these three here, emphasising the political significance of the "retro-fitted grandeur" of the KJV. Much of its language was already archaic in 1611, and this helped it to trump the popularity of earlier (politically radical) versions, even though a great deal of the KJV was just lifted word-for-word from Tyndale.

I've mentioned this one before, but it needs to be mentioned again here: Robert Alter's vivid and memorable book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton UP). This is about the way the rhythm and texture of the KJV (primarily the Old Testament – that's one of the most interesting parts of his argument) were woven into the fabric of American prose and American speech. There are chapters on Melville's Moby-Dick, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's a gripping account; I read it in one sitting, over an unnaturally long Saturday breakfast. A delightful book by a critic who really knows the Bible (he has also translated much of the OT), and who really knows how to read.

David Norton also has a new one coming out, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge UP); and Leland Ryken has just released a general introduction, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Crossway). And I don't know anything about this one, but it sounds like a lot of fun: David Teems' new biography of James I, Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (Thomas Nelson). The dandyish King James was, you know, quite a character.

PS: While we're on the topic of English Bibles: this one isn't having any anniversary parties this year, but I'd highly recommend Hendrickson's facsimile edition of the 1560 Geneva Bible – an extremely valuable resource for all students of Protestant theological history.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

In which Wittgenstein encourages the academics

The Welsh scholar Rush Rhees (1905-1989) went into academic life very reluctantly. Inspired by Wittgenstein and Simone Weil, he tried working as a welder in a factory; but he was such a bad welder that he finally accepted a job at Swansea University. Still, he couldn't quite resign himself to academic life, and he often talked about quitting his job. On one occasion, when he was very close to leaving Swansea, he received the following letter – encouraging, yet brutally honest – from his close friend Wittgenstein (cited in Mario von der Ruhr, "Rhees, Wittgenstein, and the Swansea School", in Sense and Reality: Essays out of Swansea, 225):
I should, for personal reasons, hate you to leave Swansea…. Don’t stupidly throw away an opportunity of doing some good. Your derogatory remarks about your philosophical abilities & success are so much rubbish. You are all right. And I mean just that: nothing more & nothing less. Philosophical influences much worse than yours & mine are spreading rapidly, & it’s important that you should stay at your job. That your success won’t be brilliant is certain; in fact it will be meagre, it’s bound to be. Please, if you possibly can, resign yourself to it & stay on.
Have you ever heard a better rationale for sticking at academic work?

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The dream and the drawing: a short story

Another attempt at a single-paragraph story, again inspired by the style of Lydia Davis.

My daughter saw an animated film about a girl and a witch, and she was frightened. Every night after that she saw the face of the witch, cruel and terrible, in her dreams. She wept from horror, because the witch had turned her nights into a prison, her soft white bed into a dungeon. I told her I would cure her of the nightmares. I found a picture of the witch’s angry face, and at the kitchen table we sat down with pencils, with paper, and with the picture of the witch. She drew the face, and drew it again until she had learned to draw it from memory. Then she understood her terror, that it came only from techniques of line and shadow, from the shape of the eyes, the direction of the eyebrows, the proportion of the mouth, the subtle curling at the corner of the lips, the length of the fingers, the way the long black cloak enfolds the body and conceals it like a secret. Then the nightmares stopped; then the witch’s face no longer leered out from the darkness of her dreams; then her bedroom walls no longer echoed with cruel laughter when the lights went out. But some time later she came into our bedroom as before, creeping up between us in the middle of the night, burying her face in my neck because she was afraid, because her fears had folded over like a cloak, because in her bed she had dreamt the hand of a witch clutching a crooked pencil, scratching white lines on a black page, patiently bringing to life a face, her face, the small frightened face of a frightened child.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Milbank, Egypt, Cyclone Yasi, and the Latin American labyrinth

John Milbank's second Stanton lecture, on Immanence and Life, is available now. He's also written a more popular piece for the ABC on Recovering Trust in a Labyrinth of Solitude. To my surprise, I discovered from this piece that Milbank and I have been reading all the same books lately: he discusses Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, and Roberto Bolaño. To be honest though, I don't think he's right about any of them: who would describe One Hundred Years of Solitude as a document of "meaningless secularism"? You might as well call The Arabian Nights a nihilistic book. The reference to Octavio Paz is dubious too, since Paz's labyrinth of solitude isn't a denial of love, but an account of the conditions which make love possible. In fact, Paz's The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism is one of the most striking and beautiful things you could read in defence of erotic love.

Speaking of literature, the new issue of Literature and Theology is devoted to the theme of poetry and belief, with articles on Blake, Shelley, Hopkins, Stevens, Auden, and others.

And while you're over at the ABC, see also Waleed Aly's piece on the uprising in Egypt. And if you've been following the news of the Cyclone Yasi this week, here's a great slideshow with some photos of the aftermath. (Why do we find it so soothing to see photographs of natural disasters? As a boy, I always loved cyclones – they're a regular source of excitement for children growing up in the tropics. Each time, we waited eagerly for the news that our school had been blown away.) Anyway, I especially like this photo – thank God the books weren't damaged!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Names of the Sea: chapter 6


(Different title, same story.)

Chapter 6. Harry

But those long swimless days of my recovery were not quite as I have described them, alone with my map and my sunburn and my little patch of coconut shade. Something else had happened at that time too: my mother had brought home Harry. She turned up with him one afternoon as I was using a broken pine cone to draw an elaborate map in the sand. Where he’d come from I never found out. But there he was, a shabby, melancholy chap with eyes the colour of creekwater and a big lopsided smile that always looked like he was halfway between apologising and planning how to perpetrate his next devilish mischief. For Harry, I soon found out, was fond of mischief.

My mother said, “What’ll we call him?”

I blinked, incredulous at the question, and said, as though nothing could be more obvious, “His name is Harry.” And so that was his name.

He was a thoroughbred mongrel, splotched all over brown and grey except for a scraggly white tail, a scruffy hobo who’d wander the streets for scraps and bark at the moon at night and cringe in whimpering fright if ever you raised your voice or spoke a single harsh word to him. Looking back on it now, I suppose my mother thought he'd be a distraction, that he’d give me something else to think about. I suppose she thought he’d keep me from the sea.

Harry had a grim white scar running down from his ear to the corner of his eye, and he’d flinch whenever you touched it. “Was he in an accident?” I asked.

“It was his father,” my mother said, squatting down beside me in the shade. “It happens sometimes with puppies. If you don’t keep the father away, he’ll try’n kill them.”

“What for?” I said.

“The bitch, all he cares about is the bitch, mating with her over and over. Can’t mate when she’s raising the pups, so if you're not careful he'll go over and bite them, crush their heads in.” She slapped a mosquito and added, “Typical man, when you think about it.”

*

When I was back on my feet, the map of the island shimmering in my mind as bright as a migraine, I discovered that Harry was an inveterate explorer. Under the oppressive regime of that period – all swimming had been banned absolutely until further notice – Harry and I set out to lay bare whatever secrets the island might be concealing from us. We climbed the colossal grey rocks that line the bay. We found the places where the waves had drilled their patient caves into stone. We followed each other deeper and deeper into the bush. We surveyed the island from the hilltops. He kept lookout while I climbed the trees in search of birds’ nests. We found snake skins and cicada shells and inexplicable sheets of metal buried in sand. We crept into the old mineshaft and dug pits in the sand to trap the lions and the bears. We unearthed prehistoric bones beneath the dry creek bed. How Harry could detect these subterranean artefacts remains a mystery to me, but his skills were infallible. I tried to teach him to locate buried pirates’ treasure, but his only facility was for bones.

It was at this time that I started to draw my first maps, scanning the rugged topography from the highest trees and cartographically recording the sites of our adventures. It was also at this time that my mother sent me to church.

I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to believe I was ever much of a churchgoer, but it’s true, I congregated at the Magnetic Island Revival Church for the better part of two years, right up until the day the drowned preacher was found washed up on the shore, his face wrapped in seaweed like a bloated Egyptian mummy.

The preacher’s name was Pastor Dave. He and his wife raised their children on a sprawling dilapidated farm over at Florence Bay. I can’t be sure of the exact number of their children since I was never able to count them all at one time, but I’d say there must have been at least twelve of them, certainly no fewer than ten. They were communists and homeschoolers and Vegetarians. They made their own shoes and grew all their own food and never ate tinned soup, because they believed the barcodes on canned goods were the Mark of the Beast, a code of eighteen digits that spelt 6-6-6. They also believed in breastfeeding, and even some of the older children could be seen walking alongside their mother, pulling down her sarong for a quick drink while she was outside picking oranges or feeding the chooks. Their farm was one of the biggest and rowdiest places on the island. There were always strangers and blow-ins and backpackers staying in the bungalows down the back while the children ran around chasing roosters and hacking down branches and setting fire to green ants’ nests and pissing on the vegetables that grew everywhere like wildflowers. Not many people went to the Revival Church, but Pastor Dave was pretty well known on the island because he was always going around to the different bays, knocking on doors and offering prayers and fresh vegetables, or hanging around at the Nelly Bay jetty telling the good news to anyone who'd listen. That’s how he’d met my mother, and when he heard about my near-fatal cirvumnavigatory swim he’d come knocking at the Old Train, more than once, offering to come and pick me up himself and take me along to the Lord’s House on Sunday morning. I suppose my mother thought I needed a bit of straightening out; so finally, swallowing her atheism and her pride, she agreed to let me go, remarking with a weary sigh, “At least they’re not Catholic.”

I was nervous the first time, never having darkened the door of a church before, and not knowing quite what to expect inside. I’d heard about the Revival Church, of course, and knew they could speak in magical languages, could predict the future, could perform miraculous cures, and could tell just by looking at you if you had an evil spirit. Once Pastor Dave had levitated six inches off the ground during a powerful sermon about repentance and the Queensland State Government, they’d even reported it in the paper, that’s what I heard.

Anyway, one Sunday Pastor Dave came by to pick me up. He drove this old school bus, painted bright and crazy as a flowerbed with JESUS IS LORD written down each side and a big psychedelic peace sign on the back. That was how he used to round up the whole flock on Sunday mornings, so there’d already be a congregation singing and clapping their hands and rocking the bus from side to side before it ever got to church. That’s how it was that morning, with a whole busload of parishioners, at least half of them the pastor’s kids, all peering out the windows at me as I stood waiting by the roadside, barefoot in my blue shorts with Harry by my side, and Pastor Dave leaned his elbow out the window and honked the horn and hollered out as cheery as if he were Santa Claus, “Well don’t just stand there matey boy, hop on board!”

The first unsettling piece of theology I ever learned was that you’re not supposed to bring the dog to church. Harry jumped on board beside me, as excited as I was at the prospect of a bus ride, but the woman up front with beads in her hair – it was Mel, the pastor’s wife – patted my shoulder and said with a pearly kind smile, “Sorry, sweetheart, no pets allowed on the bus bound for glory.” Everybody laughed and the whole place erupted into raucous song, and there I was at the middle of it all, you can just imagine, peering at all those sandalled feet and down at my own dirty bare ones, and leading poor bashful Harry back out the door on to the road, where he wagged his tail forgivingly even though I had dealt him a cruel betrayal and a terrible disappointment.

I don’t know why it is, this universal law since time immemorial that prohibits dogs from ever resting their heads in the cool shade of our places of worship. For what is more worshipful, more thoroughly possessed of religious instinct, than a dog? Even the sparrow hath made a nest at thine altars, that’s what the Psalmist says. But ever since the first hallowed bricklayer laid the blood-soaked stones of the first temple at the dawn of time, dogs have been left outside, made to stay behind while the bus rattles off down the road without them. I suppose those ancient priests and lawmakers knew that the awkward solemnity and morbid vanity of our rites would instantly be put in the shade by the free and unselfconscious, the good-hearted and open-mouthed devotion of the dog. Man takes himself too seriously to be a genuine worshipper: you’d see that right away if ever you allowed the adoring canine to prostrate himself beside you in the temple, paws splayed out in petition, tail thumping like a drum, tongue lolling on the cold hard floor at the hour of prayer.

At any rate, I went to church alone, and I don’t like to think of what Harry must have got up to in those lonely hours, left all to himself on a hot summer’s day when the sand burned like fire and your eyes stung from the sun that lit the sea as white as teeth.

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