Wednesday, 27 November 2013

AAR/SBL in Baltimore: a report in rhyme

Scholars
At SBL and AAR,
Scholars come from near and far
To drink together at the bar.

Papers
At AAR and SBL,
Everyone is smart as hell
(Their papers can be hell as well).

Sightseeing
All the scholars stop and stare
At Oliver Crisp and his facial hair.

Jobs
If you have a PhD
And like to be abused,
You can pay an extra fee
To go to interviews.

Books
Thousands of new books on display,
But which are worth reading? Who can say?

Publishers
They greet you with kind words and friendly looks.
But when your back is turned they pounce –
And force you to write books.

Length
Two things are exceedingly long
(I won't say exceedingly weird):
The first is a book by Nicholas Tom,
The second is Oliver's beard.

Panel
I went to the afternoon panel,
It sounded excellent too;
But I fled for my life when I heard someone mention
The names of Zizek and Badiou.

Friends
My friend had drunk too many drinks
At the Wipf & Stock reception.
He kissed my cheek and said, "I'm straight –
But for you I'd make an exception."

New book
When you see them buying and selling your book,
You suddenly feel exposed:
Like one of those dreams where you're preaching a sermon
But haven't put on any clothes.

Homesick
By Sunday I was feeling blue.
I missed the ones I left at home:
My dog, my cat –
By Tuesday I had missed my family too.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The girl and George Herbert (version 2.0)

Yesterday I related this anecdote about my visit to Bemerton and a cafe in Salisbury. When I wrote the post I found the ending quite lame, but didn't know how to improve it. But thanks to a wonderful comment by Alan Jacobs, I've now been able to rewrite the post, and to give it a proper ending. It is a pleasure – a very great pleasure – to be wrong about something when it means you get to be corrected by a person like Alan Jacobs. So here's the new version.
--

Today I walked to the church in Bemerton where George Herbert had been a priest. I sat for an hour alone in the tiny church, reading from a book of Herbert's poems, kneeling to pray, carrying on a private little conversation with the bones of my poet which lie resting somewhere under the altar. I contemplated his poem "The Call," and for the briefest second his description of Christ as "such a feast as mends in length" lit up my mind like lightning, so that I seemed to have glimpsed the naked essential truth of things (though I could not tell you afterwards exactly what it was).

The walk back to Salisbury takes about an hour, and even though it was quite wet and cold I made my way along the muddy path with a light heart, feeling very glad and free.

At an upstairs cafe in a restored medieval building in Salisbury I was brought coffee by a girl with a face like Helen of Troy. When she put down the coffee on the table beside my hand, I thought: men would launch ships, they would send their sons to war, for a face like this. She was turning to leave so I asked her for a glass of water, not because I needed water but because I needed her to come back and stand a moment longer near me, outlined against the wide window and the grey sky. I watched her turn to walk away and I thought, my God, even her knees are perfect. I wondered what her knees would look like without the black stockings. And such small feet! I imagined her gently kicking off the small black shoes, one by one, and walking barefoot across the floor.

I tasted the coffee and it was very good. She came back and put a glass of water down on the table. Her hair was longer than I had remembered and her eyes were darker than I had remembered. Because the table was so low, she had to bend down to place the glass in front of me. I averted my eyes. I looked at the light that rippled on the surface of the water in the glass.

I wished I were a stage director. I would give her the part of Cleopatra and find an Antony to make speeches to her. I wished I were an artist. I would draw her, every inch of her, in blackest charcoal. I wanted to capture the light in her dark eyes. I wanted to bless her, salute her, memorialise her, build an altar to her. I wanted to do so many things.

The glass of water came to rest on the table in front of me. Her fingers slid away from the wet glass. Her small feet padded away on the wooden floor.

I do not mean to make you blush, reader. I record these details purely for the sake of contrast. For am I not the same identical person who, one hour before, had sat in the church at Bemerton thinking the most pious thoughts I ever had in all my life? That entire hour of prayer and contemplation; my proximity to the bones of a saint whom I have loved my whole life; the feeling of God's will wrapping all around me like a cloak – what happened to all that? An hour ago my heart had gone to Bemerton. Now with all my heart – the same heart! – I was contemplating other things.

It makes you realise that pious thoughts and religious feelings are a fine thing as far as they go – but they don't go very far. Less than an hour, as it turns out.

Or was the girl's effect on me more closely related to the effect that Bemerton had had on me an hour before? Did my soul wake up too much at Bemerton, so that instead of stumbling drowsily through life as usual I was, in that cafe, staring reality in the face? Is that why the first human being who crossed my path seemed so unbearably bright and piercing? Was I tempted to worship her for the simple reason that I saw her for what she really is: the image of God in black stockings? Was it merely – merely! – the radiance of a real human being that pierced my heart and knocked my soul off balance?

Was all this, in short, a spiritual side-effect of praying in the little church in Bemerton?

Perhaps it is a mercy that we normally perceive each other so dimly, like shadows gliding by in a dream. Perhaps God dulls our senses out of kindness, knowing that if we saw each other for what we really are, we would spend every day half-blinded by the light reflected in every face. We would be paralysed by glory. We would never get anything done. Our hearts would be so ravished by the sight of even the most unexceptional human beings that we would be constantly struggling against (or yielding to) the temptation to fall at their feet and worship them.

We see one another through a glass darkly: thank God for that! But after going to Bemerton and kneeling in a place where prayer has been valid, I came back out into the light of day and accidentally saw another human being face to face. And now I will have to live somehow with the consequences.

Friday, 22 November 2013

On the limits of thinking pious thoughts

Today I walked to the church in Bemerton where George Herbert had been a priest. I sat for an hour alone in the tiny church, reading from a book of Herbert's poems, kneeling to pray, carrying on a private little conversation with the bones of my poet which lie resting somewhere under the altar. I contemplated his poem "The Call," and for the briefest second his description of Christ as "such a feast as mends in length" lit up my mind like lightning, so that all at once I seemed to have glimpsed the bare essential truth of things (though I could not tell you afterwards exactly what it was).

The walk back to Salisbury takes about an hour, and even though it was quite wet and cold I made my way along the muddy path with a light heart, feeling very glad and free.

At an upstairs cafe in a restored medieval building in Salisbury I was brought coffee by a girl with a face like Helen of Troy. When she put down the coffee on the table beside my hand, I thought: men would launch ships, they would send their sons to war, for a face like this. She was turning to leave so I asked her for a glass of water, not because I needed water but because I needed her to come back and stand a moment longer near me, outlined against the wide window and the grey sky. I watched her turn to walk away and I thought, my God, even her knees are perfect. I wondered what her knees would look like without the black stockings. And such small feet! I imagined her gently kicking off the small black shoes, one by one, and walking barefoot across the floor.

I tasted the coffee and it was very good. She came back and put a glass of water down on the table. Her hair was longer than I had remembered and her eyes were darker than I had remembered. Because the table was so low, she had to bend down to place the glass in front of me. I averted my eyes. I looked at the light that rippled on the surface of the water in the glass.

I wished I were a stage director. I would give her the part of Cleopatra and find an Antony to make long speeches to her. I wished I were an artist. I would draw her, every inch of her, in blackest charcoal. I wanted to capture the light in her dark eyes. I wanted to bless her, salute her, memorialise her, build an altar to her. I wanted to do so many things.

The glass of water came to rest on the table in front of me. Her fingers slid away from the wet glass. Her small feet padded away on the wooden floor.

I do not mean to make you blush, reader. I record these details purely for the sake of contrast. For am I not the same identical person who, one hour before, had sat in the church at Bemerton thinking the most pious thoughts I have ever had in all my life? That entire hour of prayer and contemplation; my proximity to the bones of a saint whom I have loved my whole life; the feeling of God's will encompassing me like a cloak – what happened to all that? An hour ago my heart had gone to Bemerton. Now with all my heart – the same heart! – I was contemplating other things.

It makes you realise that pious thoughts and religious feelings are a fine thing as far as they go – but they don't go very far. Less than an hour, as it turns out.

So I suppose like everybody else I will have to go on living the Christian life the slow way. I will have to remember that it is more important to be faithful than to be pious. I will have to go on saying my prayers and taking communion and giving alms and wetting my fingers in the baptismal font, day after day and year after year.

I am still glad for one calm clear hour in the church at Bemerton, for the chance to pray with the bones of George Herbert sleeping under my feet. I am glad, too, to have been lucky enough to see a face like the face of the girl at the cafe. For all I know she might have been an angel. For all I know, underneath her clothes there are wings. But angels' wings are no concern of mine. For God made me to walk, not fly.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Audio: Reading George Herbert

Drawing of Herbert's church by Guy Ottewell
I'm writing on George Herbert at the moment, and I've spent this week near Herbert's former church in Bemerton. If you've ever tried getting through life without reading George Herbert, I don't know how you do it. Anyway, after breakfast this morning I made some audio recordings for you of a few Herbert poems:


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Phone call from uncle (overheard in a London cafe)

In a crowded cafe near Trafalgar Square, a crumpled old donnish-looking gentleman put down the book he had been reading and made a phone call. Though I was sitting at the other side of the room, I had the benefit of hearing the conversation quite distinctly since the gentleman bellowed every syllable at the top of his lungs, holding the phone at a distance from his face like a singer with a microphone. I have thus recorded his words for posterity, as a distillation of general sound advice for young people everywhere.

Hullo! Now I wanted to say I'm frightfully sorry I've not come to see you. I know we talked about it, and I haven't forgot to come, but I'm afraid it's been quite impossible because, as it were, of the weather. It's been awfully cold and wet in the city – sunny from time to time, you understand, but very cold as a rule – and I can't get out much in weather of that sort. But I hear you've settled in, and I wanted, as it were, to say hello and find out how you're doing. So then: how are you finding things in Sussex? And where are you staying? Do you have, as it were, a flat? And are you sharing it with three or four other characters, or do you have your own little place all to yourself? Ah, I see, and these other characters, what are they like? That is to say, do you get along with them? And do you all, as it were, eat together? And how often do you take these meals together? Excellent. I suppose it's one of those little flats with a shared bathroom and loo somewhere in the building? No? Your own loo? Splendid, splendid, excellent. And how are you finding university? I'm sorry we didn't to get to talk about your Johnson paper, we could certainly have had a little talk about that, but I'm sure the paper went splendidly all the same. And what is the teaching like, how do you find it? I suppose by now you've found the good men who are worth hearing? I suppose you're rushing back and forth taking in lectures by all the best people? And have you been all right, because last year you were really quite depressed. How is all that business now? Do you get out and do things? I mean, apart from study and socialising, do you go out, as it were, to discos? What do you do then? Are you involved in any clubs, that is to say, university clubs apart from study? I see. Are there any hobbies, pastimes, that sort of thing? You do what? Now the trouble with poker is that in the end one always ends up losing one's money, so stay away from poker from now on. And what about girls, do you see any girls? Have you managed to find, as it were, a girlfriend? And where does one go to meet girls in Sussex? I see, I see. It was rather different in my day, quite a different thing. Girls today are concerned about hygiene and cleanliness and that sort of business. It really makes it a lot harder for a chap. But you mustn't let it get you down. I'm not talking specifically about sex, if you catch my drift, but you must try to find a girlfriend if you can, just do your best, but above all, don't get too concerned about it. But you must certainly try to get out more often to places with girls. Get out, as it were, in the evenings. Good man, good man. Now then, here is what we shall do. When the weather improves I shall come to see you in Sussex, and we shall have, as it were, a drink together. It'll be soon, soon. But until then: goodbye!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Tweeting the books of the Bible

Over the past couple of days I've been having a lot of fun writing a tweet for every book of the Bible. Here's where it's up to so far – and thanks to @KristaNDalton for showing me how to storify these tweets. If you'd like to contribute your own versions, we're using the tag #CanonFodder.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Rock songs for 40 philosophers

by Kim Fabricius

Heraclitus: “Fire” (Bruce Springsteen)
Socrates: “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye)
Plato: “Cave” (Muse)
Aristotle: “Politician” (Cream)
Epicurus: “Let’s Live for Today” (The Grass Roots)
Epictetus: “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones)
Plotinus: “The One” (U2)
Augustine: “Time and Love” (Laura Nyro)
Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham: “School” (Supertramp)
Desiderius Erasmus: “School’s Out” (Alice Cooper)
René Descartes: “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
Thomas Hobbes: “Welcome to the Jungle” (Guns N’ Roses)
John Locke: “Uncle John’s Band” (Grateful Dead)
Baruch Spinoza: “You Are Everything” (The Stylistics)
Gottfried Leibniz: “Wonderful World” (Sam Cooke)
George Berkeley: “It’s All in My Mind” (George Jones)
David Hume: “Are You Experienced?” (Jimi Hendrix)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Sincerely” (The Moonglows)
Adam Smith: “Hand in My Pocket” (Alanis Morissette)
Immanuel Kant: “A Well Respected Man” (The Kinks)
Jeremy Bentham: “Rock That Body” (Black Eyed Peas)
 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: “Spirit of the Age” (Hawkwind)
Arthur Schopenhauer: “Dark Turn of Mind” (Gillian Welch)
John Stuart Mill: “Liberty Walk” (Miley Cyrus)
Søren Kierkegaard: “One Is the Loneliest Number” (Aimee Mann)
Karl Marx: “Money” (Pink Floyd)
Friedrich Nietzsche: “If I Had a Hammer” (Trini Lopez)
Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Vienna” (Ultravox)
Miguel de Unamuno: “Tragedy” (Bee Gees)
Martin Buber: “It Takes Two” (Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock)
Martin Heidegger: “Life Will Be the Death of Me” (The Ordinary Boys)
Jean-Paul Sartre: “Me Myself I” (Joan Armatrading)
Emmanuel Lévinas: “Faces” (Scary Kids Scaring Kids)
A. J. Ayer: “Positively 4th Street” (Bob Dylan)
John Austin: “What’s the Word?” (Lil’ Kim)
John Rawls: “Long Black Veil” (The Band)
Michel Foucault: “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy)
Harry Frankfurt: “Rock N’ Roll Bullshit” (Against Me!)
Jacques Derrida: “Hit the Road, Jack” (Ray Charles)
Slavoj Žižek: “Super Freak” (Rick James)

Monday, 11 November 2013

The bad lecture

I had been wracked by anxiety as I prepared to give the public lecture. There would be a big audience. They would be expecting to hear something worthwhile. They would be expecting me to be good. I was afraid it would not go well. I was afraid they would not be pleased. I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. I had trouble falling asleep at night because of my restless thoughts.

Then in my bed at night I dreamed of the lecture. I presented it badly, very badly. I stumbled over my words. My thoughts were incoherent. I was not able to get my point across, in fact I could hardly remember what the point was as I strained to get the words out. I could see from the faces in the room that everybody was bored, dispirited, distracted. Wherever I looked I saw people glancing at their watches, fiddling with their phones, or snoozing discreetly in their seats. Then the lecture ended and on their faces I saw not anger or consternation or even disappointment, but only mild embarrassment. Their embarrassment made me embarrassed too as I left the podium and walked stiffly back to my seat.

I woke from the nightmare. The room had grown cold. It was dark except for the sliver of yellow light on the wall from the street lamp. My wife stirred gently in her sleep. I realised I had thrown off the covers. I pulled them up to my chin because I was cold.

I lay in the dark and thought: What a terrible lecture.

Then I thought: So that's the worst that can happen. Embarrassment.

And then I thought: Well then, I can certainly live with that.

I had just given one of the worst lectures of my life, certainly one of the worst five I have ever given, and I was actually – smiling! More than that – I don't quite know how to put this delicately – I actually, well, I chortled for a second before I stopped myself because as everybody knows chortling is a ridiculous way to behave at four in the morning.

And then I rolled over and went back to sleep and slept with a peaceful heart till morning, for I had seen my worst fear and had discovered, to my great surprise, that it was nothing to be afraid of.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The obedience of reading

The other day I was reading Helen Vendler's book on the poetry of George Herbert. It is the product of a powerfully lucid mind. The author opens up each poem with all the delicacy and precision of a clockmaker, exposing the gears inside and showing how each poem works, why the best ones are so good, and how the weaker ones have malfunctioned. It is a consummate piece of literary criticism, absolutely clinical, discriminating, loving, analytical.

I finished the book. I put it down. My heart was full because the book had been so good. I looked out the window from my reading chair and thought about Helen Vendler and the way she reads poems. I got up to make a cup of tea. The dog followed me into the kitchen. He looked pretty halfhearted about it because he is always lazy during the day when the children are at school. A house without children is like a yard without a bone, that's how he sees it. I felt sorry for him, the self-pitying way he watched me boil the kettle, so I rewarded him for his sadness with a bit of dried meat from the cupboard.

I got my tea and went back to the chair and opened the next book. It was about the institution of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome, written by somebody named Joseph Vogt. While the dog went back to sleep beside my feet I studied the picture on the cover and opened the book at random to sample a sentence and inspect the typeface. I rummaged through the index. I examined the table of contents. I consulted the bibliography. I loved the way Helen Vendler had described George Herbert's "native delight in neatness." I thought I should write the phrase down somewhere so I wouldn't forget it. I opened Joseph Vogt's book to the first page and began reading. I read the first page, then the second. By the third page I was beginning to find something vaguely unsettling about this book. Something did not seem right. There was a pebble in the shoe somewhere, but I did not stop to wonder what it was. I kept reading, and half way down the fourth page the question formed itself clearly in my mind: But which one of Herbert's poems is he talking about?

That was when I understood the problem. My eyes had been reading the words on the page, but my mind was still lodged in Helen Vendler's book. I had not, in fact, understood a single word that I had read, for I had unknowingly brought Helen Vendler with me to the other book and was still expecting to find George Herbert under every stone. My eyes were with Joseph Vogt but my mind was aligned with Helen Vendler. As soon as I became aware of the problem I looked out the window and took a second to adjust my mind, calibrating it to the new themes of slavery, ancient Greece, ancient Rome. Then I turned back to the first page and started again. This time I understood what I was reading; it was a good book; I no longer thought of George Herbert and was therefore able to enjoy learning about Greece and Rome.

Anyone who reads books as a way of life will be familiar with this experience, and with the way one's mind requires calibration to different authors and different kinds of books. Even casual distractions require small mental adjustments; this happens whenever you get to the end of a paragraph only to discover that the whole time you were thinking of sex or shopping. But more interesting and more subtle is the way books can interact with one another so that, when putting down one book and taking up another, the book you are reading is muted by a sort of residual presence of another book, an echo of another voice.

The act of calibrating one's mind to the specific nature of a book is, I believe, one of the chief pleasures of reading. It is indeed a pleasure unique to reading, exquisitely dissimilar from the pleasures of other arts like cinema and music. The reading life is a life regulated by this practice of precise internal calibration to the books one loves. The best books are the ones that have to teach us how to read them, how to adapt our expectations to what is present in them. It is why so many great books are so long. Moby-Dick has to be as long as it is; if it were any shorter, our first reading would not allow us time to begin to learn how to read it.

This internal alignment might be described as the obedience of reading: the capacity to yield ourselves to another, to suspend our agendas to make room for something different from ourselves. We experience the pleasure of reading to the degree that we are spiritually capable of such obedience. In a strange way, it is this obedience itself that produces pleasure. That is why books that demand very little adjustment on the part of the reader – a book, let us say, in which everything is predictable from the start – also offer comparatively few pleasures. It is the book that demands a more drastic adjustment of the self that also rewards the reader with greater (in some cases life-changing) pleasures.

And this is why learning to read well requires time and effort. It requires a willingness to go back to the first page and start again – not because reading is hard work but because it is hard-won pleasure. There are books that yield up their peculiar pleasures only after many re-readings. In some instances, years of study may be required before one learns how to enjoy a book. But even the most difficult book is read ultimately in trust that the reward, however delayed, will amply compensate for the trouble it took to obtain it. I have read The Tempest fifteen times in the same year – not because I was addicted to its difficulty for its own sake, but because I found the book's elusive promise of joy so compelling, and because with all my heart I trusted that the book would keep its promise. I read it fifteen times to learn how to align myself with it, how to become obedient to its peculiar magic. I read it fifteen times because I wanted to know how to read it.

I have called this internal work the obedience of reading. But really that is misleading. It will be more accurate if we simply agree to call it love. The art of reading is an art of love. It is a way of going outside myself to discover the strange country of another heart and mind. Aligning myself to the customs of that country is not an onerous burden. It is something more like courtesy, a recognition that there are persons other than myself whose voices are worth hearing and whose hearts are worth knowing.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Dead-duck doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

I once preached a baptismal sermon entitled “Witnessing Your Own Funeral” (cf. Romans 6:1ff.).  The day of my retirement – eucharistic worship followed by a cracking restaurant meal – it too was like being at your own funeral: everybody saying such nice things about you. I guess the old saying “de mortuis nil nisi bene” goes for de emeritis too.

In early retirement I’ve been trying to downsize, separating the wheat from the chaff, discarding stuff that’s accumulated over the years, some of it significant at the time but now baggage, some of it just stuff that got shoved in a corner, some of it crap I’m surprised was even there. Time to get rid and move on. I’ve been doing the same thing with the stuff in my study.

Mañana is said to be the devil’s day.  Not when you’re retired.  When you’re retired, ayer is the devil’s day – the temptation to look back. Mañana is hoy as hope.  

The irony of retirement from pastoral ministry is the realisation that for over 31 years I never worked a day.

I am occasionally asked why I became a minister. The answer is easy: the alternative was terminal unemployment.

Lord, keep me from a Giant Sequoia faith; the small, mustard seed kind will do just fine. For if my faith gets too big, how will I fit through the narrow gate?

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” – passive aggression or what! More deeply, what an exquisite example of the defence mechanism of sublimation, as what is actually felt – “[I] hate the sinner, [I] love the sin” – is transformed into its opposite.

“I am the bread of life” is not good enough for some Christians. They think our Lord was remiss in not adding: “– and you’re toast!”

Why the “delay” of the parousia? Is God giving sinners time to repent? Hell no. Surely it’s to increase apocalyptic tension and terror; but, above all, it is for God’s own good pleasure: vengeance is a dish best served cold, right?

For the Calvinist, God chooses hell for some of his children. For the Arminian, God chooses to let some of his children choose hell for themselves. So it’s like one father kills some of his children, another father lets some of his children commit suicide. And these are the alternatives to universalism? No thanks.

“Love (III)”: George Herbert’s answer to Martin Luther’s question. The definitive answer. Vividly remembering an occasion when she recited it to herself, Simone Weil wrote, “pour la première fois, le Christ est venu me prendre.” For me too this poem is a prayer as sacramental as the feast of which it sings.

I like a good German beer, but I’d rather a bottle of an excellent Burgundy, say a Côte de Nuits Villages: that’s why I prefer Calvin to Luther.

“And you’re special, how?”: the short version of God’s answer to Job.
Shorter version: “Shit happens.”
Silent version: [God hands Job a DVD of The Tree of Life.]

Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. Pope Frances will be the hurricane.

In his recent homiletical broadside against “Christian ideology”, the pope drew an important distinction between praying and saying (set) prayers. I would only add that the Lord’s Prayer itself is not exempt from Francis’ critique. In Luke 11:1ff., the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, not to teach them a prayer. Ditto for eucharistic anaphora: they are not priestly incantations but (as I once heard Rowan Williams put it) “aides-memoires”. Yes, the holy of holies itself may become an ideological charade – indeed an ideological cover-up (cf. I Corinthians 11:17ff.).

On not reading KB: As Walter Benjamin (almost) wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of Barthianism.”

Claude M. Steele’s seminal Whistling Vivaldi (2010) takes its title from the story of an African American student who discovers that, walking the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park, he can take affirmative action and disarm white folk by whistling “tunes” from The Four Seasons.  Which suggests a tactic for women students who are pissed off at feeling marginalised in Barth Studies departments: sisters, don’t give up reading CD, a Pyrrhic protest, rather take the fight to – and the piss from – the Boys with targeted “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” whistle-ins.

I see Joel Osteen has a new book out: Break Out! 5 Keys to Go Beyond Your Barriers and Live an Extraordinary Life. Yep, 5 keys ought to do it, for sure. Ask Steven Tyler or Kate Moss.

What next for Dan Brown? Perhaps The Apostle Screed?

On the whole complementarian/egalitarian debate, I admit to taking the view of an anthropologist on Zog, but you gotta love Rachel Held Evans, who clearly speaks to and for many a shackled sister, while both beguiling and riling the menfolk. Sweetasmicawezizzle, she’s the (married) Mary Poppins of theo-blogdom, “practically perfect in every way”. Indeed, as a theme song for her website, how about “A Spoonful of Sugar (helps the medicine go down)”? I put RHE’s winsome sass down to an undoubtedly Welsh heritage (Ifan, btw, means “God is gracious”): women have always proved more than a match for the men in the “Land of our Fathers.”

At F&T, scrolling down “Blogs I like,” I came to the fine Near Emmaus and clicked “If you could ask @Pastor Mark Driscoll one question…”  “OOPS!” the screen informed me. “It looks like nothing was found at this location.” You couldn’t make it up.

Speaking of MD…  Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan” (Mark 3:23)? To rephrase the question in a Lewisean kind of way, “How can Screwloose cast out Screwloose?” I don’t know, but it looks like Driscoll and John MacArthur are trying to find out.

Bonhoeffer famously said that not becoming a saint but learning to have faith was his spiritual goal. Here’s a more modest proposal for Christians: let’s try learning not to be such jerks. Like Paul, I’m not ashamed of the Gospel, but too, too often I’m ashamed of myself and the church.

Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God? Maybe, maybe not. But then the same goes for Christians and atheists.

“He follows Jesus and the New York Yankees (in that order)” – From About Peter Enns, on his blog.  I love the parenthesis: it is an inerrant example of a contradiction masquerading as a qualification.  (Btw, here’s a proposal: that Peter change the name of his blog to The Enns-Time, to give it an eschatological edge: apocalyptic always sells. Mind, his opponents might prefer the name Ennsolence.)

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The monk's toes

Tarrawarra Abbey, All Souls' Day

So it turns out I have feet. Two of them. They squat like white toads on the green grass, wrinkled, sprouting hairs. Every once in a while the toes twitch and sometimes when they do this a blade of grass pops through one of the cracks between the toes. It gives me joy to see the grass pop through so suddenly.

It appears there is something wrong with the toes, for each of them has grown a curious yellowish claw. What are they for? What will the feet do with these sharp protrusions? Use them to catch prey? Dig holes? Peel fruit? They could, I suppose, be used to soothe me if I brought my mouth down very close to chew them. Chewing the nails along my fingers is a thing that I have always liked to do, and I have always found it soothing. But the toes do not look appetising, and besides, a centipede is making his way across one foot and I would never want to startle him or to bite his little legs off by mistake. Walk on, little brother! I will keep an eye out for you and make sure no harm comes to you!

And how did they get so wrinkled, my toes? The rest of me is young, youthful, very fresh and new, a  spring chicken. But the toes are prunes. They look, if I am not mistaken, nearly a hundred years old. There must be some mistake. I check my legs, running both hands from the knees down to the ankles. No, there is no denying it, those feet are definitely my feet, the toes my toes. Well. That is disappointing. I forgive you, toes! I hold nothing against you!

Just think, I must have been lugging these toes around with me all this time but never knew it. Oh, I suppose I might have caught a glimpse of them from time to time. I recall trimming the nails once or twice. I recall showering, toes being washed and dried with a towel. I must have noticed them too the time I cut my toe, for I must have cut it once upon a time, the scar is proof. I am sorry if I hurt you, toe. Forgive me! Let us speak no more about it!

Let us say then that I have seen these toes before, yes, that I have quite definitely seen them, but had never truly noticed their existence until now, until today, until I pulled my shoes off and sat down under this kind wise tree and prayed and stared for one hour at my toes.

The centipede has stopped to take a look around. He cannot decide whether to walk across the toes, five arduous hairy hills, or to go back where he came from. He is sniffing around with his antennae. Perhaps he is trying to establish if this is all dead meat, these feet, or a living thing; he wants to know if he should start eating me now or come back later. A little later, brother! A little longer and I will lie down in the ground and feed you.

The tree's big shade is very good to me. It makes it good to sit here praying and looking at my feet. The branches creak when the wind comes up the hill. Some of the leaves fall down but not too many. I lie back in the grass and look up at the branches that stretch into the sky, a leafy ladder. Sometimes, I have often felt it, a great urge has come upon me to climb the ladder. I would go up to the highest branches and look out from the treetop. I would love to climb your branches, sister, and to look down at the river. Nobody would see me there but I would see the winding river and the bridge and the cows over the first or second hill. One day I will do it, I know I will. One day, sister, when I am younger I will climb every branch until I reach the top. And then I will climb back down smiling at the terrific secret of it and climb down under the ground and rest there in the shade with my toes tucked under your roots for fertiliser, deep down there beside my brothers, and all of us will pray under the ground and feed you and feed the grass and I will be a great feast for the little tickly centipedes which I love.

But not today. I am only resting. This is just the dress rehearsal. Some days, on days like this, the thought of dying grows so big in me that I am frightened that my face will break in two from smiling.

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