Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Audio sermon: Why I believe in God

As part of a cluster of events this year responding to the New Atheism, our college faculty is doing a sermon series on the question, "Why I believe in God". I gave my sermon on Sunday at a church up in the Blue Mountains. If you'd like to know why I believe in God, here's an audio recording in three mp3 files (each about 6 or 7 minutes):

Why I believe in God (1)
Why I believe in God (2)
Why I believe in God (3)

My text is Matthew 5:14-16: "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The woman with the alabaster jar

There's a striking poem in a recent issue of Eureka Street, by Brisbane writer Davina Allison. It's a gorgeous, erotic, rather heterodox reflection on the Gospel story of the woman with the jar of expensive ointment. I liked it very much – and its heterodoxy made me wonder whether there could ever really be an orthodox interpretation of this extravagantly sensuous story. I mean, any reading that overlooks the eroticism of the story is kind of missing the point, right?

Then again, as Kim said, maybe you need a bit of eroticism as a prophylactic against the docetic heresy...

The woman with the alabaster jar

She knew the lines of a man's back
as well as she knew the taste
of decanted fig-wine, or the way the spine
girdered the back under her hand;
an uneven scaffolding of flesh under fingers.
It was a gentle gift, this. Acquired slowly
in the stones arranged on her mother's grave,
in the deep vault of her hip against his.
Dipping like water, she learnt to press libations
into her hair — lavender, dill, coriander;
to twist strands against the frame.
There was salvation in this. And Art too;
that fingers still wet from mulberry
could etch a form of truth on the skin,
like the rim of flung-coin, or the
consolation of Spring oranges and their spurting.

But the truth of them has been forgotten.
His dirty feet and tired eyes, her hennaed-thighs
in sandalwood and linen, how she swung her hips,
how his loneliness was an atrium arching from his chest
to the lip of the buttress; aching for her to unfurl her hair.

—Davina Allison

Monday, 29 August 2011

OCDoodlings

by Kim Fabricius

When is Christ returning? Next year? Next month? Next week? Even the next minute? Who can wait that long? What unambitious and indolent expectation!

Biblical illiteracy and Pelagianism are now so epidemic that you could announce your Good Friday sermon text as the Eighth Word of the Cross – “I did it my way” – even sing it – and get away with it.

It used to be that you could have a eucharist that was “valid” but “inefficacious”. Nowadays, you can have a eucharist that is “invalid” but “efficacious”. In other words, it used to be that you could have a eucharist that was the real thing but didn’t work, while nowadays you can have one that works even though it isn’t the real thing. Kind of like Pepsi.

Michael Bird has recently criticised “contemporary liberal or progressive Christians” for being “little more than ‘chaplains for Nero’.” Which I guess would make the spiritual advisers to several recent US Presidents chaplains for Genghis Khan.

What do you call a White House prayer breakfast? If it’s done right, an exorcism.

The holy has migrated from the church to the state (William Cavanaugh), but its Temple is not the Capitol or the White House but the Pentagon. In the UK too, politicians may be venal and royals risible, but every soldier is now a hero.

Faith begins with an exclamation: “What the #%&* was that?!”

Lord, keep my faith from becoming the souvenir of a country I no longer inhabit.

Can you imagine a tumescent Christ? If not, your Christology is probably docetic.

Has there ever been an illustration of the Trinity that didn’t leave the illustrator with theological egg on his face – shell, white, and yolk?

Of course God threatens his people. Above all, God threatens us with forgiveness. Check out Matthew 18:35. And observe the divine irony that it is the culminating verse of the Gospel for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost – which this year happens to be the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Derrida teaches us that the very possibility of forgiveness lies in its impossibility. Even the language is Barthian.

On models of the atonement that isolate the cross from the Jesus who actually stalks the gospels, and from the resurrection of this Jesus: “It’s the metonymy, stupid!”

As H. Richard Niebuhr might say of a certain kind of American evangelicalism: A God without wit brought men without soul (and their womenfolk) into a kingdom without the oppressed through the ministrations of a Christ without the Beatitudes.

I hear that Mark Driscoll is preaching a how-to series of homilies on male copulative techniques entitled The Sermon on the Mount.

If there is no hell, then the devil is homeless, so all the more reason to be on your guard.

A good pastor must find everybody else’s life as interesting as his own. Which is not very difficult.

Somerset Maugham said that in every shave there is a philosophy. That explains why bearded theologians are often apophaticists.

I’m a runner, so I thought of doing a doodling along the lines of “Running is prayer in motion.” But any honest runner would know that’s pretentious bullshit. “Running is solipsism at speed” would be more like it.

Celebrities comment on serious topics, and we think, “Why should I listen to a pop star on the bombing of Libya or the looting in London?” But let her become a Christian and suddenly she is an iconic theologian who speaks with authority.

The recent looting in England was a disgrace, but it is, after all, government policy and market practice.

One of the ironies of modern life is that while we are working harder and harder, intelligence is taking longer and longer holidays.

You bump into people you haven’t seen for a while and they may say, “You haven’t changed a bit!” Never has an intended compliment been such cause for despair.

Luther said that the cloaca is the devil’s habitat. But admit it: besides the shower, isn’t that where some of your best thinking is done?

Retirement smashes the illusion that you have ever been anyone other than – you.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Theology events in Sydney

The University of Notre Dame in Sydney is advertising for a Professor of Theology: details here [pdf].

In other Sydney theology news, my new colleague Jeff Aernie arrives this week to begin teaching New Testament. And my friend Matt Tan (who blogs at The Divine Wedgie) has begun teaching theology at the Catholic liberal arts institution, Campion College.

There are some good events coming up in Sydney too. The Greek Orthodox seminary is hosting a series of Wednesday night seminars on the theology of Gregory of Nyssa [pdf]. In a public debate at the City Recital Hall, Scott Stephens and Peter Jensen will debate Jane Caro and Tamas Pataki on the theme Atheists Are Wrong. And my own college is holding a day-conference on climate change and the common good with Ernst Conradie and Clive Hamilton, followed by a conference on atheism.

Israeli writer Amos Oz was also in Sydney this month. He gave a very entertaining lecture at the Shalom Institute on the theme of fanaticism – you can hear it on ABC radio.

A little in the year, the Australian Bonhoeffer Conference will be exploring the theme: Practical Mysticism: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Conversation with Mary MacKillop.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The challenge of John Stott

A guest-post by David Williamson

The death of John Stott (1921-2011) is a watershed moment in the history of evangelicalism. He represented a faith which was not neo-fundamentalism but a bold effort to engage and love a rapidly changing world. It was a renewal movement in Christianity and reformational in spirit; its major focus was sharing theology with men and women in the pews, in recognition that people with jobs and families were the real priests on the frontline. In contrast with the pietism of past generations, this infusion of knowledge was intended to spur an outpouring of love; not only was the traditional evangelical emphasis on the "great commission" of disciple-making celebrated, so was the "greatest commandment" of loving your neighbour.

This is not the popular image of evangelicalism. The assiduous courting of American evangelicals was a key part of Karl Rove's strategy to secure a sustainable future for the Republican party. The emergence of the religious right has undoubtedly been one of the major phenomena in modern western politics, but this has not been the driving concern of the movement itself. In fact, the apparent ease with which many evangelicals were co-opted at elections suggests evangelicals in America spent too little time thinking about politics and not too much.

The UK Guardian provided perhaps the best British obituary of Stott, which noted that his theological conservatism did not automatically translate into political conservatism. David Turner wrote:
Stott, radical in his conservatism, could not be pigeonholed. He was deeply committed to the need for social, economic and political justice and passionately concerned about climate change and ecological ethics. He regarded the Bible as his supreme authority and related its teaching to all areas of knowledge and experience. He insisted that Christians should engage in "double listening" – to the word of God, and to the world around them – and apply their biblical faith to all the pressing issues of contemporary culture. He himself researched, preached and wrote on a wide range of matters – from global debt to global warming, from the duties of the state to medical ethics and euthanasia. This was the kind of evangelicalism he embodied.
Similarly, Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times started his tribute saying: "In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as 'evangelical Christian'." He continued:
Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice. This compassionate strain of evangelicalism was powerfully shaped by the Rev. John Stott, a gentle British scholar who had far more impact on Christianity than media stars like Mr. Robertson or Mr. Falwell. Mr. Stott, who died a few days ago at the age of 90, was named one of the globe’s 100 most influential people by Time, and in stature he was sometimes described as the equivalent of the pope among the world’s evangelicals. Mr. Stott didn’t preach fire and brimstone on a Christian television network. He was a humble scholar whose 50-odd books counseled Christians to emulate the life of Jesus – especially his concern for the poor and oppressed – and confront social ills like racial oppression and environmental pollution. “Good Samaritans will always be needed to succor those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands,” Mr. Stott wrote in his book The Cross of Christ.
Stott's hunger to engage with the greatest social issues of our day came from his engagement with the Bible. His simple belief that this book contained wonder brighter than the beauty revealed by the Hubble telescope burned at the heart of his preaching and writing, which was remarkably un-flash; he did not come across as a motivational speaker or a salesman for the faith. Rather, he was more like an archaeologist who would find a ruby in the dust and pass it to you to admire and study in the years to come. John Piper, a hugely influential exponent of Calvinism, wrote:
To this day I have zero interest in watching a preacher take his stand on top of the (closed) treasure chest of Bible sentences and eloquently talk about his life or his family or the news or history or culture or movies, or even general theological principles and themes, without opening the chest and showing me the specific jewels in these Bible sentences. John Stott turned the words of Bible sentences into windows onto glorious reality by explaining them in clear, compelling, complete, coherent, fresh, silly-free, English sentences... This is what I was starving for and didn’t even know it. Amazing! Someone is telling me what these sentences mean! Someone is making light shine on these words. It is shining so bright, I can’t sleep in this light! I am waking up from decades of dull dealing with God’s word. Thank you. Thank you. I could care less if you tell me any stories. I want to know what God means by these words!
Evangelicalism now lacks a Stott figure. It's a huge beast of a movement encompassing millions of new Chinese converts, South Korean missionaries, Latin American Pentecostals, baseball-loving Americans and Congolese immigrants to Dublin. In the United States, and to some extent Britain, the theological focus appears to be less on biblical discovery and engagement with the wider world and more on attempting to nail down precisely what evangelicals should believe. Many of the most prominent bloggers seem determined to equate Calvinism (with its focus on predestination) with evangelicalism. However, while the concept that God ordains evil as well as good and that Jesus did not so much die for the sins of the whole world as those of the "elect" whom he would summon to himself (and not by their own free will) may have been at the heart of New England Puritanism, it would shock millions of evangelicals.

It is ironic that Stott's landmark work on the significance of Jesus's death and resurrection is celebrated as one of the key texts of modern evangelicalism by many of those at the forefront of the spectacular resurgence in neo-Calvinism; but somehow there does not seem to be the same enthusiam for Stott's vision of Christians following Christ's call to act as "salt and light" in a world God loves by seeking societal transformation. Tim Challies, a leading neo-Calvinist who loves the Bible and clearly wants to follow it faithfully, wrote last year:
There is a time and a place for humanitarian work, no doubt. Christians can carry out great ministries serving the poor and the oppressed and in so doing can have remarkable opportunities to share the gospel. And yet still the history of Christianity shows that when Christians do this, the gospel quickly becomes secondary and the work itself becomes the gospel. I still see the Bible primarily emphasizing charity given to other believers; when I look at Acts and the epistles, this is what I see most – Christians helping other Christians as a sign of love and fraternity. Now of course there will be some who engage in humanitarian work outside the context of the local church, but it seems to me that the closer we come to making this a necessary part of the Christian mission, the more likely we are to see the gospel diminish.
No doubt Challies can think of many examples where this has taken place. And it is true that evangelical-founded relief organisations such as World Vision and Tear Fund face the challenge of operating as leading NGOs while finding a way to express an eternal Christian message. Also, at a time when evangelicalism is bereft of a unifying leader, it alarms many when evangelical scholars question and challenge doctrines traditionally considered core tenets of evangelical orthodoxy. In such a climate, theological and social retrenchment can appear attractive, even tempting.

But contrast this with Stott's own meditation on salt and light in a 2006 interview which today stands as a challenge to the movement he led with humility and passion throughout a splendid life:
They change the environments in which they are placed. Salt hinders bacterial decay. Light dispels darkness. This is not to resurrect the social gospel. We cannot perfect society. But we can improve it. My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital but controversial topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armories of mass destruction, responding adequately to the AIDS pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.
This post first appeared at Van Peebles Land.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Jamesism: on fear

My three-year-old boy, James, was talking about his fears as I tucked him into bed tonight:

"I'm not scared of possums on the roof. I'm not scared of anything. [Pause.] I'm only scared of three things: I'm scared of the dark, scared by myself, and scared of Outside."

I complimented him on his nearly-comprehensive bravery – and then after a long pause he leaned very close to my ear and said, in a sinister small whisper: "And the rats. The rats hate humans." I tried, rather feebly, to talk him out of this strange and troubling conviction. But deep down inside I knew he was right. So I went and wrote down one more thing at the bottom of my own long list of fears.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Welcome to the new F&T

Welcome to the new F&T – after six years at blogspot.com, we've finally become respectable! The basic look is the same, but there are several new features – including a much better, more interactive commenting system (Disqus). The RSS feed should forward automatically – but please update your links and bookmarks to the new address, www.faith-theology.com/

I'm grateful to a couple of F&T readers who took care of all the technical stuff. Mitch Ebbott kindly purchased, and then donated, the domain name. The savvy and magnanimous Aaron Hampshire did everything else: he spent many hours working on the design, installing the commenting system, importing the 20,000 comments, fixing glitches, calming my nerves when the whole blog disappeared, and so on. I'm very grateful for this great generosity! And thanks to all those who recently discussed the question of whether to move the blog – this was really helpful.

Don't forget to update your links! Pretty please! www.faith-theology.com/

Thursday, 11 August 2011

New site coming soon...

Sorry for the long silence lately. The new-and-improved F&T site is coming soon...

Monday, 1 August 2011

More damn doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

God is a She, definitely. It’s the multi-tasking that clinches it.

On the other hand, writing about hell seems to be a male thing. And a conservative evangelical thing. Quelle surprise. Male headship in families. Who wields the rod?

Mark Twain once observed that he “looked as out of place as a Presbyterian in hell.” Of course that was before the formation of the PC(USA).

In a recent book that is so hip it ought to be called Tipp-Exing Hell, one of the authors writes that, sitting with his Bible and laptop in a buzzing Starbucks, he wondered, Hey, “some of these people are going to hell” (his italics). Well, he was sure in the right place for such a diabolical thought.

Movie sequels are often pretty bad, and sometimes quite awful. That is certainly the view of powerful critics in Rome on the three-years-in-the-making blockbuster Vatican II. Opines the Curial Mafia: “The Godfather: Part Two it ain’t.”

The patient is extremely ill, and the prognosis poor. Some are trying to discover a new wonder drug. Others are prescribing traditional remedies. Many think that the cure lies in moving the patient into a designer hospital with the latest equipment and a more efficient staff. Yep, the patient is the church.

I’ve read Church in the Present Tense. And I liked it. But the title is wrong. It should be called Tense in the Present Church.

Suggested title for an Anne Tyler novel on a Mennonite community: The Church of the Broken Jaw (cf. Matthew 5:39).

In the Vegetarian Bible, I suppose Jesus would be the Yam of God who calls four guys from their allotments, tells a famous story which ends with a feast of tofu steaks and mango smoothies, curses a dogwood tree during Holy Week, skips the main course at the Last Supper, and, risen, rebukes the eleven for serving him broiled fish.

Christians sometimes say that worship “recharges their batteries”. Liturgy as a dynamo for letting our little lights shine – or for energising our professional performance so the economy runs as smoothly as possible?

“Spirituality” is the cunning way consumerism inoculates itself against its discontents.

As a university chaplain on a British campus with a substantial Muslim presence, I believe inter-faith dialogue is a top priority. That’s why, unsound as I am, I continue to try to have conversations with the Christian Union.

I hear they’re making a new Jesus film in which Glenn Beck is the stand-in for the action in John 11:35.

Did you hear about the icon artist who, after studying under James Dunn, painted a new inverted perspective on Paul?

Observing the Republican Party, I could well be persuaded by the proponents of ID were they to focus their case on irreducible stupidity.

There is “Christa”, “Black Jesus”, and “Jesus with Aids”. If you have known someone with the illness, perhaps you will agree that we now desperately need an artist to do an “Alzheimer’s Jesus”, perhaps an old Christ crucified slouched in a care home, muttering at a nurse, calling her “Mother”.

Invite Jesus into my life? You’re joking! It was breaking and entering – trashing the place, stealing the valuables, and then squatting, unevictably. Yes, I’m a Calvinist, not an Arminian.

“Closure”? Closure is psychobabble for denial. Ligature, perhaps. Even the resurrection does not close open wounds (John 20:27), it merely stops the bleeding.

It is very hard to forgive some people. Jesus most of all. Only the saints really manage it.

Counsellors tell us to forgive people lest we become embittered and twisted. Thus forgiveness itself becomes a fashionable therapy, all about me.

From personal experience I would say that deep grief is as likely to threaten a partnership or marriage as to strengthen it. Why? Because deep grief, being unique to each, isolates griever from griever, it does not unite them. And because grief is so somatic, that is why, irreverent as it may seem, it is good for grievers to make love, not as an analgesic for their pain but as a way of actually sharing it.

And a man came to Jesus and asked, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said, “Study theology, start a prayer group, go to eucharist, keep a personal journal, anything but become a decent human being.”

The Rugby World Cup Final will be played on Sunday, October 23rd, in Auckland, kick-off at 9:00 GMT. Morning worship starts at 10:30. Somehow I suspect I’ll be feeling fluish on October 22nd.

As God is not one particular extraordinary object among other objects, so an “experience” of God is not one particular extraordinary experience among other experiences. There is not an experience of striking out, or hitting a homerun – and an experience of God. But in the experience of striking out, or hitting a homerun, you may encounter God. Unless, of course, you play for the Yankees.

God doesn’t like night games. Wrigley Field was the last holdout against night games. The Cubs hosted the Phillies on 8/8/88 – an evil numerology – and the game was rained out after 3½ innings. Meanwhile, the Cubs continue to play like, er, the Cubs. No, God doesn’t like night games. So there will be no night games in the New Jerusalem: see Revelation 21:23. After the cheerless preliminaries of the Dies Irae, Opening Day will see the Cubs play the hometown Lambs. As the last will be first, the game will be too close to call.

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