Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas with Rachel


A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It’s been a wonderful year for babies born to the daughters of people we know. Working backwards, in July to a girl we know very well indeed – her name is Katie – she’s my daughter – she gave birth to a girl named Scarlett. Angie and I – grandparents finally. I can’t tell you how much I can’t wait to begin undermining everything her parents tell (though from the single-mindedness she is already demonstrating daily, I suspect I will be surplus to requirements). Then in April, a boy named Mason was born to Lisa Gammon. And back in February, Carla, née Cavali, the daughter of two close friends of ours, had a little girl, Sophia Marie. But there was an even earlier arrival this year, earlier in February: Rachel Hamlyn, née Beynon – yes, our organist’s daughter – she gave birth to James, who was baptised here exactly two weeks ago.

But it’s not that Rachel I want to talk about this morning. The children of Katie and Lisa and Carla and Rachel, I am quite sure, will grow up surrounded by a tonne of TLC, and there is every hope that they will blossom and flourish. But of the children of another Rachel, and mothers like her, we can have no such hope. For this Rachel there is only a grief that refuses all consolation. As St Matthew records it, quoting the words of the prophet Jeremiah: 
A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament. 
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace, 
Her children gone, dead and buried.
(Matthew 2:18, The Message)
We first hear of this Rachel in Genesis 29, when Jacob meets her by a well where she is watering a flock of her father Laban’s sheep (vv. 16-20). She is stunning. Boy meets girl at well, it’s love at first sight, and after courtship and marriage they will live happily ever after – it’s a venerable folktale, and we wait for the story to develop in the ensuing narrative. But it is not to be. Jacob works for seven years for Laban to get the girl of his dreams, but on their wedding night, under cover of darkness, Laban slips Rachel’s older sister Leah into the nuptial bed. Leah is veiled, and it is not until morning that Jacob recognises the deception. He confronts Laban, who re-promises Rachel to him, on condition that he works another seven years on his father-in-law’s farm. Done – such is Jacob’s passion for Rachel.

But the newlyweds’ problems are just beginning. They try and try, but Rachel, unlike Leah, is unable to bear children. “If I do not have children I will die!” Rachel cries. God finally hears her cry, and eventually she conceives and bears a son, Joseph, her husband’s favourite child, who will become the link between the origins of Israel in Canaan and the liberation of Israel from Egypt (not to mention becoming a West End stage star with an “amazing Technicolor dreamcoat”!). Rachel will go on to have another son, but this birth will not be the subject of a musical: Rachel dies in labour. With her last breath she names her boy Benoni, “son of my sorrow”, which Jacob changes to the more hopeful Benjamin, “son who will be fortunate”. Jacob then buries his beloved and sets a pillar by her tomb, which, the Bible says, “is there to this day” (Genesis 35:20). And Genesis makes a further observation, more than salient to the Christmas season: the tomb is “beside the road to Ephrath, now known as Bethlehem” (Genesis 35:19).

But Rachel’s role in the Hebrew Scriptures does not end in Genesis. There is another Old Testament reference to her, the one Matthew cites from Jeremiah. Here again Rachel is a figure of pain, but not the pain of death in childbirth. In Jeremiah, Rachel symbolises another kind of suffering, the suffering of injustice, the suffering of those who lose their freedom at the hands of violent power. When Babylon conquered Israel, Israel’s leaders and intelligentsia – the people most likely to cause trouble – were taken into exile. The captives were paraded along the highway that led past Rachel’s tomb. It was a road of humiliation and sorrow. Jeremiah has just prophesied Israel’s ultimate return home from Babylon, replete with anticipated scenes of singing and dancing, rejoicing and rebuilding. “I will turn their sorrow into gladness!” says the Lord. But then, in the next verse but one, the Lord says, “A sound is heard in Ramah” (Jeremiah 31:15) – that sound, the sound of inconsolable weeping and grief.

Finally, biblically, we hear that sound a third and conclusive time, Matthew’s recapitulation of Jeremiah’s lament, yet again near a town called Bethlehem, in yet another time of tears and trauma. “Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children [at the hands of Herod]. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants” (Stanley Hauerwas). In Genesis, Rachel is an icon of the suffering of childbirth. In Jeremiah, Rachel is an icon of the mother of victims of oppression. Here in Matthew, Rachel combines both traditions. How grim can grief get?

But hang on. Is that it? Is there no hope? There must be, surely. Surely there is a future. Look at Benjamin: he will have ten sons, and generations hence from his line will spring the apostle Paul. Look at Rachel’s post-exilic children – they will indeed finally return home. And look at the one Herod was after, the one who evades his mass murder, Jesus of Nazareth himself. Yes, that is true. “There is hope for your future,” as the Lord says to Rachel (Jeremiah 31:17).

Yes, that is true. But it is not true as repression and cover-up. It is not true if it means that the desolate can simply forget their heartbroken past. It is not true if it suggests that immense loss does not irretrievably determine one’s very identity – it does. For the wretched of the earth, everything becomes a potential reminder of the eye that will never be dried, and the tear that will never be mended. Sorrows that were once the potholes of life now become the main road – the one that winds its inexorable way past Rachel’s tomb, bang into a stable in Bethlehem. Thus Martin Luther rightly saw in Rachel’s story a link between the Nativity and Good Friday.

Rachel refused to be consoled – and God blessed her in her refusal. God promised Rachel hope – but not a hope on which she might count on the basis of reason or resourcefulness, experience or expectation. That would be a false hope. True hope is always hope against hope, inexplicable, unjustifiable, and unsecurable. True hope is always but a razor’s edge from despair, because it cannot and will not close its eyes to the anguish, or shut its ears to the screams, that constitute the sordid story of the world – the murdered children, the massacred victims, the millions of tortured and disappeared. No, as the poet Emily Dickinson understood: “To relieve the irreparable degrades it.” Even Christ does not relieve the irreparable. Our Lord’s identity too is irretrievably bound to his wounds. His resurrection does not remove them. His scars mark him eternally. How should it not be so with all God’s children? 

The crib and the cross of Jesus are our hope – Rachel’s hope, the mothers of the infants of Bethlehem’s hope, the hope of the mothers of the twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook School – the hope of the mother of the murderer too – and the hope of the mothers, always and everywhere, of slain or suffering children. But the hope of the crib and the cross does not mean that the victims are any less dead, or their parents and families any less grief-stricken. We betray the Christian hope if we lie about the world of death and grief, for it is precisely this world that the born, crucified, and risen One has redeemed and is redeeming – this slaughter-bench of a world that he redeems. And for his followers that means that we do not live in denial of the one, even as we do live in affirmation of the other, and that we both accept that we do not know what the future holds – it is beyond our control – and insist that we do know who holds it. And it also means that we live in opposition and resistance to all that would demean and destroy any of the creation that God once pronounced good, and stand protectively but peacefully beside Rachel and her children. It means we cry, “Lord, have mercy!” – and then take responsibility. 

“Seeing ourselves honestly, seeing the world differently. That’s where faith begins,” as Rowan Williams put it on Wednesday. Thus may we go into to the New Year with two echoes resounding: the cry of those who will not be consoled, and the voice of Jesus who, on the precipice of despair, which is yet the brink of glory, says, “Fear not, take up your cross, and follow me.”

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

O boy, it’s Christmas

And God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God observed them closely, these lovely creatures he had made, his masterwork, his image-bearers. God watched them reasoning and deliberating, laughing and weeping, falling asleep and falling in love, writing stories, building cities, inventing religions, feasting and drinking, making laws and making music and making love – and God loved it, loved all of it down to the last toenail and the last pubic hair.

And God said, Behold, let us go down among them and unite ourselves to them. Let us become like them in every way, just as they are in every way like us. For God wanted to show these image-bearers how closely they resembled him, how easily he could put them on like a familiar suit of clothes (and never take them off again: for so God loved them). Let us become bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh (said God), to show that human flesh and bone are not far from us but are our likeness, a perfect perambulating replica of our joy.

But what sort of human being should God become? That was a tough one. God inspected all the different stations and species of human life, trying each one affectionately, scrupulously, the way a person tries on many pairs of shoes to find the perfect fit.

Butchers and bakers and candlestick makers,
graphic designers and stolid bricklayers,
doctors and lawyers and unemployed surfers,
earnest young men and old women in burqas –

God saw them all and loved them. Each one of them was suitable. Any one of them would do fine. But somehow it was still not – quite – the thing God had in mind. God scratched his head, or would have, if God had had a head.

And then God spied them. A glorious little huddle of them. They were squatting in the dirt with dirty limbs and dirty faces, faces rapt as they hunted about for bugs, dug for worms, farted and belched and made agreeable little grunting noises. God watched them a long time, scrutinised them, sized them up and studied them from every angle, and God was very pleased, for this was just the thing. Yes, this would fit like a glove.

And so it was that grace was added to nature, creation was sanctified, the whirling worlds redeemed, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well and all that jazz. For it was on that day that God, the Lord, the master of the universe, became – a boy.


Merry Christmas.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Yes, it is true: sermon for Advent 4

by Kim Fabricius

Each year we hear again the ancient Christmas narrative. Each year we retell the story of how, almost unnoticed, God snuck into the world of Augustus and Herod, the “the movers and shakers”, to re-make history from below. We are astonished, touched, tickled, by our humble God’s predilection not for nabobs but for nobodies, for oddballs and outliers, for those whom the system chews up and spits out, the poor, the sick, the sad, the bad, the old. Something unimaginable and unpredictable happened, something original and fresh was revealed. God in his kindness decided to break the silence of centuries by giving himself away in the Word-made-fragile-flesh, whose first utterance was the hungry cry of a helpless new-born, whose last would be the desperate howl of a crucified misfit.

The mysterious Advent of God was focussed in a child; the breadth and depth of God’s love was expressed in a mite in a manger. God chose to visit the world not in Whitehall or Wall Street but in weakness, through an ordinary birthing by a peasant teenager in troubled times and awkward circumstances. The maker of galaxies and solar systems, mountains and rain forests, blue whales and dancing daffodils, revealed his glory in a bairn in a barn in the back of beyond.

Yes, the Christmas story we hear each year is the same, but our worlds, private and public, are always different. Joy and sorrow, success and failure, health and sickness – there are always annual alterations, good and bad, and, if we’re lucky, not cut down before time, we develop, decline, and die. But no matter what changes we negotiate, what achievements we celebrate, what losses we mourn, what tragedies overwhelm us, the Christmas story speaks to us again of The New – new birth, new life, new purpose. It tells us that things can and will be different, that the past need not and will not determine the future, that the God who met us once in Jesus will meet us again in Jesus, that the God of surprises is working even now, with unpromising material, in hidden ways, to create a new heaven and a new earth.

Angie and I had our first grandchild in July, and in a very real sense that we all feel intuitively, viscerally, the birth of every child is a small protest against the tired, cynical view that we are condemned to live lives of the same-old same-old, locked in a system of one-damned-thing-after-another. But in the birth of this child, a new adventure of faith begins, a new way of being human is disclosed to us, a new way of relating to each other is asked of us, and a new power of living is imparted to us. The Christmas story is an old story that is forever young, a story that constitutes a radical challenge to the trivial, the odious, and the squalid, a story pregnant with the possibility of meaning, decency, and beauty. Danger is not denied, threats are acknowledged, stupidity still stalks, vanity struts, and violence strikes. Nevertheless, because in Jesus grace and truth have pitched a tent, established an outpost in the world – indeed a colony: the church – the glorious advent of the peaceable kingdom is no longer in doubt. So as followers of the Wee One we can be confident and courageous, strong and tender. 

That is why we make the journey back to Bethlehem each year: to go back to the future by rediscovering our roots in this gift of God wrapped in a nappy. It is the time we relocate where we come from so as to re-orientate ourselves to where we are going. It is at once a time of homecoming and of setting out, of affirming the already and anticipating the not-yet. It is a time of deep, deep gratitude, magical joy, and indestructible hope.

In a famous Christmas poem John Betjeman asks, with deep, urgent longing:

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

Yes, it is true, it is true. For me, for you, for everyone.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Dharma doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ τὐεετος, καὶ ὁ τὐεετος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ τὐεετος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγνετο, καὶ χωρ

Six Christian koans
What is the sound of one happy-clapping?
Why a Vatican spokesman when he spins?
What is Menno Simons?  Three pounds of pax.
If Mark Driscoll shouts in a forest and (unbelievably) no one hears him, is he still wrong?
Why doesn’t the bearded archbishop have a beard?
Why can’t a penisless bishop?

Speaking with the authority of recent experience, the Church of England sends its Yuletide message to the nation: “Don’t take the Christ out of Christmess.”

Here is a picture of Rick Warren, from the cover of his new book The Porpoise Driven Life:

A Methodist friend of mine asked me if I would help him with a talk he was preparing on Arminianism. I said, “Only if it’s a eulogy.”

A Calvinist friend of mine asked me if I would help him with a talk he was preparing on double predestination. “Sorry,” I said, “I’m opposed to assisted suicide.”

With Proverbs 26:11 (cf. 2 Peter 2:22) as my text, I occasionally recycle sermons.

Deep down, every critic wishes they were an author. This explains both the pathos and the pathologies of that guild of textual parasites known as theologians, universally condemned to be producers of secondary literature.

What do you say about a genius like Tolstoy when he opines that King Lear is “beneath serious criticism”?  —“Marry, here’s grace and a cod-piece; that’s a wise man and a fool” (King Lear, III, 2).

And how do you respond to someone who doesn’t get Moby-Dick? —Be cool, count to ten, keep schtum, for as Starbuck said to Ahab, “To be enraged with a dumb thing … seems blasphemous.”

Have you ever noticed that Hamlet begins as a knock-knock joke in medias res? (Interestingly, in Macbeth, written 5-6 years later, a porter delivers a comic monologue which follows the form of a knock-knock joke [II, 3].) Or how its unfolding tragedy could have Romans 12:19 as an epigraph (cf. Anna Karenina)?

In Europe, God is dead. In the US, he’s in even worse shape.

A born-again Christian named Burke
Boasted, “No one is saved by their works!”
Ha! His faith served him well
When he found out in hell
That they make an exception for jerks.

What can one say of creationists but OMG (On Misreading Genesis).

Jesus was leading an Ethics 101 class which included Socrates, Buddha, David Hume, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Jesus said, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.”  Hume said, “Which self?”  Buddha said, “What self?”  Socrates said, “What is ‘love’?”  And Hauerwas said, “Who the hell is Niebuhr?”

The Sermon on the Mount without the resurrection is empty. And the resurrection without the Sermon on the Mount is – empty.

“Ought” implies “bought” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20).

In Christ we learn that it’s not “Where there’s life, there’s hope”, it’s “Where there’s death, there’s hope”, and “Where there’s hope, there’s life.”

Do you want to see your soul? Shave.

We have nothing to fear but nothing itself.

The problem is not that we are out of touch with our emotions but that we are in the grip of them.

The clever would rather be right than wrong; the wise would rather be kind than right.

A recent survey by the British Heart Foundation of the elderly finds that only 11% of the men regretted not having slept with more women. I suspect it would also find that that these 11% are either lying, gay, or suffering from severe memory loss.

A very good blogger recently ran a series on “The NFL and Christian Theology”. I kept waiting for a guest post by Screwtape.  (By the way, you know the guy, ubiquitous, who stands in the crowd behind the end zone waving the John 3:16 placard? That’s Wormwood).

“They are the custodians and initiators into felt intimations of open horizons, of well-springs of recuperation and self-surpassing for a constricted and worn humanity.”  That’s George Steiner on Gehrig, Williams, Mays, and Koufax. (Or was it Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven?)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Best books of 2012

I didn't read so many new books this year. To be honest I've been content to fritter away most of my time reading Augustine and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Augustine. So the best book I read this year I guess was Antony and Cleopatra, maybe The Tempest. But there were some terrific new books published in the past year, including some experimental works that altered the usual forms of scholarly writing. Here's my selection of the best of the year:

Theology
Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you only want to read one religious book this year, read this one.

Paula Fredriksen, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton) 

Robin Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (Baker)

Medi Ann Volpe, Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship (Wiley-Blackwell)

Prayer and spirituality
Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead). If you don't want to read even one religious book this year, read this one.
Poetry
Louise Glück, Poems 1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings (Penguin)
Literary criticism
Maureen McLane, My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Actually this book defies genre: it's a unique concoction of literary-critical memoir-poetical writing. Very good it is too. Perhaps my favourite new book overall this year.
Essays
Ali Smith, Artful (Penguin). Or maybe this one's my favourite: another genre-bending book, a wondrous quartet of fictionalised essays. This easily wins for cover of the year too (pictured above).
Memoir
Joan Didion, Blue Nights (Vintage)
Novel
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt). All right, it's a big book and I've barely even started. But I know a good book when I see it. Though as a rule I prefer small books to big ones.
Short stories
Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories (Knopf). These small stories, for instance.
Sermons
Diaries

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Theological publishing: the best of 2012

I'll soon post my favourite books of 2012. But first, I'd like to nominate the three most important events in current English-language theological publishing. Each of these is a major series that's been running for some time now, with more volumes appearing this year:

New City Press: The Works of Saint Augustine. Not only the most comprehensive English edition, but the most comprehensive edition of Augustine's works ever published in any language. Highlights include Edmund Hill's translation of De Trinitate, Maria Boulding's wonderful Confessions, and the epic six-volume Expositions of the Psalms – an unparalleled Herculean achievement of early biblical commentary.

St Vladimir's Seminary Press: Popular Patristics Series. Over forty volumes are available in this wonderful series of new translations. The volumes are attractive, affordable, very accessible, nearly pocket-size. They're an ideal resource for classes, book groups, or devotional reading. Highlights include Basil the Great on social justice, Gregory the Great's pastoral rule, poetic exegesis of scripture from the Syriac tradition, Symeon the New Theologian's poems on divine eros, and the collected early treatises on the Lord's Prayer.

Fortress Press: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. The new English translation of the complete 16-volume critical edition of Bonhoeffer's writings. A major feat of contemporary scholarship, and a massive resource for protestant theology. Highlights include the critical edition of Ethics, the huge volume of comprehensive prison writingsTheological Education Underground from the illegal Finkenwalde seminary, and that great work of protestant monasticism (and one of my favourite classroom texts), Life Together.

Note: Speaking of patristic texts, there's a new blog community for reading the church fathers, a few pages each day.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Prayer for Newtown, Connecticut, December 14

But wherefore could I not pronounce Amen? 
—Macbeth

God of liberty, we give you thanks for the many freedoms that we enjoy by your blessing.

For the freedom to express ourselves, we give you thanks! 
For the freedom to satisfy our urges and impulses, we give you thanks!
For freedom of trade, especially the freedom to buy and sell weapons and ammunition at competitive prices, we give you thanks!
For the freedom to bear arms, we give you thanks!

Save us, O God, from those who would threaten our rights;
Save us from legislators who would take away our freedoms;
Save us from those who would constrain the free expression of our feelings;
Save us from those who would compromise our free commerce in guns, weapons, and all instruments of self-protection.

Increase our freedoms more and more:
freedom to do as we please,
freedom to buy and sell,
freedom to possess handguns, semi-automatic assault rifles, automatic machine guns, stockpiles of ammunition, holsters, slings, scopes, and other accessories,
freedom against neighbours,
freedom against strangers,
freedom against children,
freedom against the unborn, 
freedom with our bodies and the bodies of others,
freedom to pursue our own interests,
freedom to gratify ourselves at any cost.
May the firstlings of our hearts be the firstlings of our hands,
and may we bring this freedom, O God, to those who lack it.

Fulfil us, O God!
Gratify our desires!
Validate our feelings!
Let us be free, though the world perish!

We ask it in the name of Jesus, your beloved son,
whose birth and infancy we venerate,
who came among us harmless as any child –


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Marian hymn

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;

Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the stem, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
By all things blest while endless ages run.
Amen.

“Mary the Dawn,” by an anonymous poet; audio recording here.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Doo-doodlings


by Kim Fabricius

How should the church respond to congregational decline, financial deficits, and vocational shrinkage?  The answer is obvious: make ministerial selection more stringent, theological education more demanding, and spiritual formation more exacting. And burn anyone who proposes a managerial or entrepreneurial solution. 

Who pastors the pastor? The pastored, of course – not least by exposing all our pathologies.

The names of almost all churches suggest a dreadful lack of theological depth, imagination, and audacity, and a failure to go ad crucem. Or can anyone point me to “The Church of the Two Thieves” (named after the first Christian congregation)?

Sanctification may be defined as the process of growth, coram Deo, in reliable self-narration.

The saint is a person for whom the gospel, once counter-intuitive, has become common sense.

I firmly believe in interfaith dialogue. Though it’s bloody hard work with American conservative evangelicals. Having a cultural anthropologist as a facilitator helps.

So Rachel Held Evans had A Year of Biblical Womanhood. My wife said she’d rather have 365 days of root canal. I told her I’d be up for A Year of Solomonic Manhood. She said I wouldn’t last a night.

Those who write, read, and review books on whether Adam and Eve really existed – there’s a chunk of your life you’ll never get back.

“Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;
Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits!”  
That’s Jonathan Swift, in the concluding couplet of “Cassinus and Peter: A Tragical Elegy”, tracking the acute cognitive dissonance in Cassinus caused by the visceral realisation that his beloved has bowel movements. Thus do some Christians exhibit a theological pathology over a deity that defecates.

The C of E has insured that the English are, by and large, both a faithless and a decent people. If that’s what it takes not to have a Religious Right, it’s not a bad trade-off.

On the other hand … Monty Python answers the Psalmist (139:7) after the vote on women bishops: “Er, the General Synod?” All that was missing were ZZ Top beards and Elizabethan codpieces on the delegates with XX chromosomes.  

Stanley Hauerwas thinks that the US produces no “interesting” atheists because “the god most American say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny.” Which explains why the UK produces no interesting atheists either: no deity being available in the UK, the god they deny they have pinched from America.

“The United States is the greatest nation in the world” – the British would never declaim such bullshit about their own nation. Such swagger is not in UK DNA. But the statement is not so much hubristic as meaningless, for it presumes a judgement on the basis of a comparison with other nations of which most Americans are, in fact, pig-ignorant. Show a map of the world to, say, a Texan, and ask him to stick a pin in France. Well, you might just as well be playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. (Sticking a pin in a Frenchman is an altogether different matter.)  

Part of the brilliance of The Sopranos and The Wire is the way they problematize the moral convention of “good guys” and “bad guys”.  So too Homeland. I mean, you’re rooting for the terrorists, right?

What is the difference between The X Factor and a presidential election? The competition in The X Factor is more interesting, and the voting system is more sensible. 

Reversing the biblical order, the Grahams, Franklin and Billy, demonstrated during the presidential election that the sins of the son may be visited upon the father (as if Dad wasn’t hauling around enough of his own tonnage from the Nixon years alone).

Don’t confuse pains in the ass with assholes. True prophets, for example, are pains in the ass, while court prophets are assholes.

No wonder the “Star Spangled Banner” is hard to sing: it sticks in the throat. Hence its near perfect rendition: Jimi Hendrix’s wretched Woodstock whine.

The Iraqis and Afghanis shouldn’t take American wars so personally. It’s just business, Yahia.

A says, “My sins cry out against me!” God replies, “What sins?”
God says, “Your sins cry out against me!” B replies, “What sins?”
That’s the difference between costly grace and cheap grace.

FOX News: it sure does.

If you want to make a point, don’t write a poem. And if you want to piss off a poet, ask him what it means.

Sigmund Freud
Got extremely annoyed – 
In fact, he went bloody ballistic.
He cried, “Carl, for Chrissake, you’re a mystic!”


And the “Hostage to Fortune” Award goes to – Bob Ryan, the guy who coined the nickname “America’s Team” for the Dallas Cowboys. Though just which is the hostage, America or the Cowboys, is debatable.

Tim Tebow fans, don’t worry: no more miracles but he’s still the Messiah, only now in the form of the Suffering Servant. New York will do that to you.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Revolutionary joy: audio sermon on the Magnificat


On Sunday I had the pleasure of preaching at Grace Long Beach. I spoke on the Magnificat: "Revolutionary Joy" would have been a good title, though I didn't think of it till afterwards.  Anyway, the audio is available here (the sermon starts at around 4:50). 

This is the second time I've done a sermon with a sung refrain; I quite like this approach, for three reasons. (1) It creates a moment of embarrassment while everyone's trying to figure out why the preacher is singing so badly, and whether they ought to sing along; and I think a bit of public embarrassment can be a wholesome way of building community. (2) It helps to remind the congregation (or more importantly the preacher) that the sermon is part of the congregation's worship; it's not a lecture or a Bible study or an outpouring of pious emotion or whatever. And (3) it lets you offer a cluster of small related vignettes, instead of a sustained monologue. This really appeals to me when it comes to a colossal text like the Magnificat, a text that I'd find it almost impossible to speak about directly. There are some texts that matter so much that the best you can do is to glance at them indirectly, make a few mute gestures, sing an awkward little song in a crowded room.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dear light, clear light: Adam of St Victor on the Holy Spirit

One of my happiest discoveries at AAR last week was the new series of Victorine Texts in Translation, published by New City Press. These thematic volumes bring together annotated translations of mystical, exegetical, liturgical, and theological materials from the twelfth-century Augustinian community at the Abbey of St Victor in Paris. The Victorine school, with its contemplative piety and its pedagogical approach to theology, played a major role in the later emergence of scholasticism. It also produced some of the richest liturgical poetry of the Latin Middle Ages. There are two volumes so far, Trinity and Creation and On Love, with a third volume on Interpretation of Scripture: Theory coming soon.

I've been slowly devouring the first two volumes, and am especially impressed by the translations of Adam of St Victor's Sequences, liturgical poems that were sung before the Gospel reading in the mass. Adam wrote 47 sequences, and it looks as though each volume will include a few of these poems. They are very wonderful. Here's the poem on the Holy Spirit, included in the first volume. This ought to be a test of any theology: whether it can be sung!


Sequence for the Octave of Pentecost

1. 
You who proceed from both
begetter and begotten,
equally, Paraclete,

2.
give us eloquent tongues,
make our minds burn in you,
and enrich them by your flame.

3. 
The love of the Father and of the Son,
equal of both, and
equal and entirely similar to each,

4.
you replenish everything, you foster all,
you rule the stars, you move heaven,
remaining unmoved.

5. 
Dear light, clear light,
you put to flight the darkness
of the internal shadows.

6.
Through you the pure are cleansed.
You destroy sin and
every trace of sin.

7. 
You make truth new
and show the path of peace
and the way of justice.

8.
You shun the hearts of the wicked
and enrich the hearts of the good
with your gift of knowledge.

9.
You teach and nothing is obscure,
you are present and nothing is impure.
Under your presence

10.
the joyful soul glories,
the conscience – happy through you,
pure through you – rejoices.

11.
You change the elements.
Through you the sacraments
have their efficacy.

12.
You drive away the hurtful power.
You overthrow and refute
the wickedness of the enemy.

13.
When you come
you ease the heart.
When you draw near,
the darkness of the black cloud
takes flight.

14.
Sacred fire, 
heart of fire,
you do not burn,
but when you visit,
you clear away cares.

15.
You educate and awaken
minds formerly unskilled,
asleep and forgetful.

16.
You warm our tongues. You form the words.
Your charity given inclines
the heart toward good.

17.
O aid of the oppressed,
O comfort of the miserable,
refuge of the poor,

18.
give contempt of earthly things,
lead desire
to love of celestial things.

19.
Consoler and founder,
dweller and lover
of humble hearts,

20.
drive out evil. Wipe away filth.
Make what is discordant harmonious.
Bring us protection.

21.
You who once visited,
taught, and comforted
the frightened disciples,

22.
may you consider us worthy to visit,
and if it pleases, may you console us,
your believing people.

23.
The majesty of the persons is equal,
their power and
common divinity are equal.

24.
You, proceeding from two
are equal to both,
in no way dissimilar.

25.
For you are as great and
of the same kind as the Father.
May the humility of your servants

26.
return the praises
due to God the Father and the Son,
Redeemer, also to you.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Getting into the Christmas spirit

I asked my children which parts they were hoping to get in the Christmas pageant.

Felicity: I want to be one of the shepherds!
Anna: I want to be one of the sheep!
James: I want to be the floor!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Christ the Stranger: around the traps


My Rowan Williams book, Christ the Stranger, has been getting a lot of generous attention over the past week or two. I was astounded to see it listed as one of the Guardian's books of the year for 2012 (selected by the travel writer Colin Thubron). Even my wife decided to read it when she saw that it came recommended by the Guardian!

It was also listed today in the Christian Century's year-end list of top books in theology and philosophy. Wesley Hill gave it an extended review last week in Books & Culture, and that was picked up by über-blogger Andrew Sullivan in a post on theology for dark times. Simon Perry gave it a generous review in Oxford's Regent Reviews [pdf], and Philip Harvey from the Carmelite Library in Melbourne reviewed it with some thoughtful criticisms about the importance of Williams' Anglicanism.

I'm very flattered by all the attention! It says a lot more about Rowan Williams than it does about me – but I'm thankful all the same. And I'm glad so many people are reading about Rowan Williams: he's well worth the trouble, that's what I've found.

On other writing fronts, I recently turned in the manuscript of Salvation in My Pocket: Fragments of Faith and Theology, to be published by Cascade Books. It's a collection of the best short pieces from this blog, together with a bunch of new pieces that I've written lately (which explains why I haven't been blogging much!). The book has new pieces on childhood, saints, silence, time, the cross, the death of Thomas Merton and Karl Barth, travel notes on Illinois, and who knows what else. 

And I'm back at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena for the next month, where I hope to finish a draft of Dear Mister Herbert, my letters to George Herbert on the Christian life.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Sarah Coakley on women bishops and the collapse of Anglican theology

Sarah Coakley has a terrific piece on the ABC site about the Church of England's vote this week – a vote against women bishops and for theological incoherency:

So what we have created in the past twenty years is a theological anomaly which has insidiously been made to seem normal: a whole cadre of priests – a third of our priesthood now – who are supposedly intrinsically disabled from exercising the charisms of spiritual unity and authority historically associated with the episcopate. It is here that the main theological scandal still lies: the implicit creation and normalization of second-class priesthood. The terrible danger is that this may now be extended into second-class episcopacy.
Coakley situates this theological disaster within the wider story of the church's growing bureaucratisation in recent years, and the evacuation of theological seriousness from church polity:
In our supposedly "secular" culture, the Church of England seems to have succumbed to the idea that theological ideas do not matter very much, and this may bespeak a deeper malaise even than the current crisis itself. Young people are turning back to the Church, longing for spiritual and intellectual bread; by and large stones await them, even despite a most promising new generation of young priest-scholars (women and men) who are beginning to rise through the ecclesial ranks. Perhaps in a generation things will be different. But for the moment the Church has in effect signed its own theological death warrant.
And she points out that our bureaucratic ecclesial culture comes with a cost. It displaces the culture of prayer that is indigenous to the church's life, and on which the church's spiritual vitality will always ultimately depend:
Along with the notable turn in priestly life in general to the secular bureaucratic models of "leadership," "efficiency" and "mission-efficacy" has gone an almost unnoticed capitulation – as I see it – to the idolatry of busyness.... The costliness of this pressure merely to "cope" in a whirlwind of ever-consuming administrative demands and inevitably eroded prayer is a problem that goes well beyond the particular matter of women bishops. But I dare to raise it because it says something about the culture in which a merely pragmatic or political, rather than a truly theological, solution to an ecclesiastical impasse [is sought]. Is our creeping ecclesial bureaucratization indeed the way forward for the Church in all its ministries? Is it here – rather than in any inappropriate commitment to worldly feminism and egalitarianism, as is often claimed – that the issue of women bishops is stalled and hiddenly entangled with secular mores?
 This is an excellent piece of public theology: a serious-minded, prophetic call for a recovery of Anglican faithfulness.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The cross and the lynching tree: an AAR panel set to verse

Tonight's AAR panel on James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree was quite an experience. We heard from J. Kameron Carter, Christopher Morse, Nate Kerr, and James Cone. Here's an account of the panel, told in four poems:


Lynching Tree Blues (J. Kameron Carter)

Take him down (poor boy) from the tree,
Lay him down (sweet boy) next to me.
Papa gonna hold you now (don't cry),
Mama take your photograph (don't die).
Close your eyes, it's as easy as one-two-three,
And you'll wake up in the morning come judgment day.
Take him down (poor boy) from the tree.


Theological Malpractice (Christopher Morse)

Reinhold Niebuhr, 
fastidious theorist of original sin,
went by a lynching tree one day
and never said a thing. 


Songs of Jericho (Nate Kerr)

Gray sky, barbed wire, business is booming;
we cleared away the trees to build 
these excellent high walls (Satisfaction Guaranteed). 
Outside, investors study annual reports, count sums.
Inside, because there is nothing else to do,
the women join hands, singing.


Crosses Too (James H. Cone)

By the cross I suffered,
by the cross I persevered:
there's a riddle for you.

If God was with Jesus
then God must be with us, 
for we are up on crosses too.

Friday, 16 November 2012

AAR in Chicago

I'm on my way to Chicago for AAR and SBL. I'll be chairing a panel on Saturday morning: M17-105 Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology (Saturday, 9.00am-12.00pm), with papers by Eugene Rogers, Serene Jones, Nate Kerr, and responses by Sarah Coakley.

Three of my doctoral students will be presenting too: Janice Rees and Steve Wright are both giving papers (one on gender, the other on evangelism) in M16-205 The Salvation Army and Intersections of Contemporary Theology (Friday - 1:45 PM-4:45 PM); and Matthew Wilcoxen is giving a paper on Augustine and Nabokov in A17-312 Augustine's Confessions and Its Afterlives (Saturday, 4.00-6.30pm).


As usual there are loads of interesting panels at both AAR and SBL. Some that I'm particularly interested in are:
  • A17-223 The Philosophy of Evagrius (Saturday, 1.00-3.30pm), with Kevin Corrgian, Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Robin Darling Young, and Joel Kalvesmaki
  • S18-145 Syriac Literature and Interpretations of Sacred Texts (Sunday, 9-11.30am), on the theme of "Exegesis in the Context of Asceticism and Culture"
  • M17-403 Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic (Saturday, 6.30pm-9.00pm), on the theme "James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree, with Nancy J. Duff, Nate Kerr, Christopher Morse, J. Kameron Carter, and James H. Cone.
  • M18-407 Diagonal Advance: Discussing Christian Perfection with Anthony D. Baker (Sunday, 7-9pm), with Dan McClain, Frederick Bauerschmidt, D. Stephen Long, Sarah Coakley, and Anthony D. Baker
  • A19-104 The Authority of Doctrine: In Dialogue with Khaled Anatolios (Monday, 9.00am-11.30 am), with George Hunsinger, Francesca Murphy, Bruce Marshall, Matthew Levering, and Khaled Anatolios
  • S17-341 Interpreting the Psalms Theologically (Saturday, 4-6.30pm), with Ellen Davis, Matthew W. Bates, Patrick Henry Reardon, Andrew M. Selby, Ellen T. Charry, and William Brown
  • P16-210 Karl Barth Society of North America (Friday, 3.15pm-6.15pm), with Katherine Sonderegger and Paul Dafydd Jones
  • A19-202 Teaching Bonhoeffer in Undergraduate Settings (Monday, 1-3pm), chaired by Joel Lawrence.
If you're going, I hope to see you there!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Daffy doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

It’s the gyneconomy, tonto.

In the end, the only thing Mitt Romney had going for him is that he was named after an item of baseball equipment.  And still he dropped the ball.

Evangelical pundits declared that Hurricane Sandy was God’s judgement on Obama’s liberalism/socialism. Then they declared that the storm helped win the election for Obama. As Cowper’s great hymn puts it:
Morons moves in mysterious ways
Their wonders to perform;
They plant their footsteps in the sea
And ride upon the – er, storm.
Hurricane Sandy was not God’s judgement on America, rather the gaggle of blowhards who declared that Hurricane Sandy was God’s judgement on America is God’s judgement on America.

For a quintessential oxymoron, “successful church” ranks right up there with “smartphone”.

Ours an age of individualism? More like branded bipedalism.

I’ve never written a sermon in my life. Hundreds of manuscripts – but no sermons.

The best cure I know for a Sunday morning hangover is having to preach at 11:00.

Sure, you can prepare for the event of revelation with a rigorous askesis. Like a swimmer can prepare for an encounter with a shark by doing laps.

The gay lobby in the UK has just unleashed its secret weapon. It is called George Carey.

There are only two books – the Good Book and the Bad Book (“I have written a wicked book”).  Your salvation is in doubt if you do not know the latter.

If Jesus were married, surely there would be evidence for it at Nag, Nag, Nag Hammadi.  Not to mention a scroll or ten of mother-in-law jokes.

The cover-to-cover coverage of the uncoverage of the Duchess of Kent? A storm in a 30C cup.

Warner Sallman’s uber-popular Head of Christ, with its “radiant, incandescent glow” – it’s a crappy white man’s worship-song in paint, isn’t it?  Game to Feuerbach.

What, in a word, is Jesus Christ to the principalities and powers? Kryptonite.

Rarum bellum jus in terris nigroque simillima cygno (to riff on Juvenal).

Look at Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. (And remember Grenada, the war to end the Vietnam “syndrome”?)  “Just war” turns out to be, er, just war.

Christian pacifism would be unintelligible without the resurrection of Jesus.  Conversely, the resurrection of Jesus would be unintelligible without Christian pacifists.

Alas, it is not always true that faith without works is dead. All too often it’s a zombie.

In the city centre of Swansea a man stands brandishing a Bible and shouting, “We want to make hell as empty as possible!” Not with that tone of voice, he doesn’t.

In my experience, there is only one kind of Christian more unbiblical than a liberal – a conservative evangelical.

Should there be an age of consent for becoming a Christian? Absolutely. No one should be allowed to commit to Christ before they have gotten laid, to exclude the confusion of faith with heightened adrenal hormone activity.

Dawkins is correct that religious people are bewitched by self-deceit. His error is his failure to universalise the observation. It is this half-truth that makes him a half-wit.

Who is the greatest contemporary writer of science fiction? Probably Richard Dawkins – he’s a more elegant stylist than Dennett or Pinker. Alternatively, you might call the New Atheism a non-fictional form of magical realism.

If Jesus played baseball, what would his batting average be? 1.000? No, .000. For with the bases empty, he would always draw an intentional walk; and with men on base, he would always lay down a sacrifice bunt.

“At the still point of the turning world…
… at the still point, there the dance is.” 
—T.S. Eliot, in “Burnt Norton” (Four Quartets) – on the shortstop. (cf. Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding, 2011)

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Glad to see the back of him?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I’m now into my last year as your minister, and as we go through the liturgical year, each service now has a particular poignancy to it.  Especially the major festivals. Last Sunday was my last Harvest service.  Next month will see my last Remembrance Sunday service.  In December, Advent and Christmas.  In March, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.  In May, Pentecost.  But today, to be honest I’ll be glad when it’s over and I never have to preach to you on Mark 10:17-31 again.  The rich guy – I’ll be glad to see the back of him.  I can’t stand the story of the rich guy.  (In Matthew he is “young”, and in Luke he is a “ruler”, but in Mark he’s just some rich guy).  This guy is sand in the preacher’s shoe.  Sand?  More like a beach!  Hit the road, rich guy – and (as Ray Charles sang) “don’t you come back no more.”

Of course, one has tried all the textual manipulation, and special pleading, to avoid the thrust of the story, to dodge the bullet, to deflect it from having anything to with me – or you.  For example, turning the rich guy into a very rich guy, like Bill Gates or Richard Branson, J. K. Rowling or Adele, people out of our financial league.  Maybe the filthy rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom, but not me – not us.  But that doesn’t work, does it?  Because compared to people who live in Third World rubbish dumps or even UK sink estates, compared to the homeless and the hungry, we might just as well be Gates or Branson, Rowling or Adele.

Another for-example: we say it’s not the man’s money and possessions as such that are the problem, it’s his attitude towards them – he’s got an “attitude problem”.  He wasn’t in control of his wealth, his wealth was in control of him.  Or we suggest that surely he abused his wealth – we might speculate about his voracious or “conspicuous” consumption.  We, however, have our finances under control – savings, standing orders, direct debits – “all things in moderation” is our economic catchphrase.  But, er, where in the text does it say that the rich guy was out of control, or that he was a spendthrift?  On the contrary, doesn’t the text explicitly state that he’s obeyed all the commandments all his life?  Which entails, in fact, that he was diligent in charitable giving, because the provision of alms was a fundamental religious obligation for a pious Israelite.  Indeed, Jesus has snuck in a “Do not” that isn’t actually in the Ten Commandments – “do not cheat”, “do not defraud” – and the rich guy says has obeyed that one too.  He’s not a tax-evader.  So why assume that the rich guy was greedy or gaudy?  And why do we presume that as long as we’re not, as long as we’re modest and generous, there can’t be a problem?

It’s amazing, isn’t it, the way you can avoid seeing something that’s right in your face.  The way you can read, hear the story of the rich guy again and again and not see the connection.  The connection, I mean, between the cash and the commandments.  Because it’s right there in the text.  Some Christians do, of course, see a connection, but, alas, it’s the wrong one.  Prosperity Gospel Christians who claim it’s precisely when you keep the commandments that you get rich, and that being rich is a sign that you’ve kept the commandments – and, of course, that you’re “saved”.  But Jesus says just the opposite!  He says that if you keep the commandments and get rich, so what? – it’s got nothing to do with salvation.  Indeed being rich – and being rich as such – makes it harder, not easier, to enter the kingdom.  With consummate sarcasm Jesus says you might just as well be a great lump of a camel, which was the Porsche of the rich in Judea, trying to squeeze, hump and all, through the eye of a needle.  And yet even this startling image has suffered egregious self-serving spin “at the hands of bourgeois conscience-tranquilizing” interpreters (José Miranda), with the claim (going back to the Middle Ages) that the “eye of the needle” refers to a certain small gate in ancient Jerusalem through which camels could only enter on their knees!

Let’s talk cat, not camel: C-A-T – Close Attention to the Text.  Here in Mark 10:17ff. Jesus encounters a man who is not a hostile or defensive questioner like the Pharisees at the beginning of chapter 10.  No, the question the rich guy asks Jesus is a genuine one about how to order your life in a morally integrated way.  He wants to honour God and treat fellow human beings with dignity and respect.  He begins with a courteous salutation – “Good Rabbi” he calls Jesus – while Jesus replies modestly with a well-known proverb, “No one is good except God alone”.  The stage is set for an honest and constructive conversation, no hidden agenda, no point-scoring.

Then Jesus draws the man’s attention to the commandments that come from the so-called Second Table of the Law, dealing with our behaviour towards our neighbours.  Interesting that.  People ask what they have to do to be “saved” and they get a lecture about believing X, Y, and Z, or being “born again”, or getting “baptised in the Spirit”.  But Jesus says nothing about these things, nothing, in fact, about God at all.  As I say, interesting.

Then, yes, the rich guy says he’s kept all these commandments – including that extra one – and observe that Jesus doesn’t contradict him, he takes him at his word.  But then Jesus adds, “Oh, I forgot one thing, a small point: sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor.”  Which sounds extreme enough to us, but in first-century Palestine it’s extremer still, even inhumane, because it meant parting with your property, your land – and you know how important land is to the Jewish people.  And that this is precisely what Jesus means is confirmed when he shortly refers to would-be disciples leaving their land.  So make no mistake: Jesus is demanding a sacrifice beyond measure.  Is it any wonder that the rich guy can’t make it?

But Jesus still hasn’t delivered the knock-out punch.  That comes after the rich guy has walked away, and Jesus discusses what’s just happened with his disciples.  For there we see, unmistakably, that it’s not only those with loads o’ money who are rich, it’s anyone with any money who is rich.  The disciples’ question “Then who can be saved?”, and Jesus’ reply “Humanly speaking, no one”, make this absolutely clear.  Whether you own a new Porsche or an old Punto, no chance.

But look – there is nothing personal here.  Again, there is no suggestion that you and I are personally unjust, avaricious, or irresponsible.  The point is systemic: that is, it is simply the case that people with money, and nations like the US and UK, live in and off an unjust system – a deliberately fixed and intrinsically biased market – which ensures that poor people and nations in the South remain poor.  As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas starkly puts it: “The truth of the matter is that all wealth is the result of murder.”  The colour of money looks green, but in fact it is claret.

So then, is this one of those sermons that simply leaves everyone feeling guilty?  Absolutely not.  There is good news here.  First, because there is truth here.  Avoiding reality, living in denial, looking for alibis may make us feel more comfortable, even righteous, but it won’t set us free.  Only the truth will set us free.  Even when painful, the truth is always good news.

Second, though keeping the commandments will not save us, it is better to keep them than to break them – it is better to be generous than selfish.  For then we can be sure that there is at least a little bit of God in us, for God is generous, not selfish.  And then who knows what may happen, for didn’t Jesus say that, yes, on our own, no chance of salvation, but with God – with God there is every chance?

And a final thought: there is only one time in the whole of the gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to love someone – and it is here, it is this rich guy: “Jesus looked straight at him with love” (Mark 10:21).  Jesus loves rich people!  Whew, is that good news, or what!  For a moment there … God certainly has a bias for the poor, because the poor are always getting screwed, and because the rich can – and do – look after themselves – thank you very much – but God loves the rich just as much as he loves the poor.  And, yes, love can work wonders.  Indeed, I wonder whether we should automatically assume, as we do, that the rich man rejected Jesus’ call, for he walks away with a heavy heart, grieving, not scoffing, and it is precisely such distress, when one feels disorientated, that marks the start of personal transformation.  In fact, early church tradition has it that that rich guy was named Barnabas, a cousin of the evangelist Mark, one of the earliest church leaders in Jerusalem, and the disciple who first introduced Paul to the apostles, and who became a companion of Paul on his missionary journeys.

Which makes me rethink my opening gambit about the rich guy: perhaps I’m not glad to see the back of him at all.  In fact, I may even be beginning to like him.

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