Sunday, 31 August 2014

How fiction differs from film: the problem of time

For the nth time in my life, I have begun to write a children's novel. All my previous attempts have ended in failure, mostly due to certain technical problems that I have been unable to solve. One of these is the problem of representing time.

The peculiar genius of cinema is its capacity to portray the passing of time directly. One can see this with special vividness in films where the action unfolds in real time – films like Rope (1948), Bicycle Thieves (1948), High Noon (1952), and 12 Angry Men (1957). The ability of film to record time is one reason why some of the greatest directors – Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Scorsese, among others – saw the long-take shot as having an essential importance, as if cinema achieves its full effect when it shows time unfolding in a single shot.

Even a scene depicting boredom can be captivating onscreen. One of the most beautiful scenes in Journey to Italy (1954) shows a married couple driving in a car across Italy, utterly bored with each other's company. The camera shows the passing of houses, fields, and street signs. It shows the sullen boredom on the faces of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. But it is not boring to watch. We are watching the passing of time, and that is marvellous to behold.

In his classic study on the art of cinema, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky argued that time is in fact the medium of film. The whole artistry of film, he believed, lies in the way it shows things passing through time. The director carves a film from a "lump of time". "Time [is] the very foundation of cinema: as sound is in music, colour in painting, character in drama."

With the novel, things are very different. Fiction cannot portray time directly. Events in a novel cannot unfold in real time. The novel cannot show what the passing of time looks like. Of course, the ability of fiction to portray human consciousness depends on time as a condition. But the novel is sculpted out of consciousness, not out of time. Time is hidden behind the action of the plot.

This distinction between film and fiction might sound philosophical. But it has helped me to find a solution to a technical problem that I have faced whenever I have tried to write fiction. In my attempts to write novels, I kept trying to achieve cinematic effects. If the character is going on a journey, I would describe the journey. If the character is waiting for something, I would describe the waiting. If things were developing, I would try to describe the process. The results are deadening. Process and movement are the stuff of film, but not the stuff of fiction. (Obviously there are exceptions. A novel like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a work of genius precisely in the way it seems to record the passing of time. A novel like this is the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, for present purposes I'm not concerned with works of genius. I'm just trying to figure out some basic techniques for creating an ordinary run-of-the-mill novel.)

It was only recently that this difference between film and fiction became clear to me, in part because I've been watching a lot of early movies from the 1920s and 30s. So I decided to try another children's novel. I've planned this novel simply as a series of scenes plotted along a timeline. I am deliberately trying to pack everything into these scenes and to leave out everything between the scenes. I have renounced (or am trying to renounce) the attempt to describe process, development, and the passage of time. 

The approach I'm trying here is also modelled partly on the theatre, where the gaps between scenes are largely responsible for the creation of suspense. Shakespeare never shows anybody going on a journey: they have either arrived or they are about to set out; or, often enough, you hear about the journey indirectly during another scene. All the action is crammed into a sequence of more or less static scenes, while the passage of time (including all sorts of major developments in character and plot) occurs between the scenes.

I don't know if I'll achieve better results this time. My earlier attempts at novels have all sunk beneath the weight of their own insufferable boredom and indigence. This one is called The Island of Lost Cats. It is modelled on a detective story. It involves a boy, his cousin named Jack, and an island on which all the cats have mysteriously disappeared. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Christianity and social vision: once more on creation and apocalyptic

Dear reader! My recent reflections on creation and apocalyptic were so roundly repudiated, ridiculed, and rebuked that I thought a few points of response and clarification might be in order.

1. Childhood

Nothing attracted more jeering, especially in the echo chambers of Facebook, than my observation that raising children had influenced my view of the world. It was especially seminary-educated individuals who professed to be shocked by such a revelation. I was denounced for implying that childless people cannot have sound views. I was said to be promoting noxious "hetero-normative" values and to be propounding "a doctrine of the family". I was condemned, reasonably enough, for advocating "the maintenance of white supremacy". One criticism ended with the ironic comment, "But hey, I have no children" – as if to demonstrate that, in the despicable world of Ben Myers, nobody except a parent could ever be qualified to express an opinion about anything.

It is always interesting to see how much of ourselves can be projected on to what we read. (Just go back and read the offending passage in light of those readers' criticisms, and you'll see what I mean.)

When I wrote the post, I didn't advance any doctrine of the family. I didn't recommend parenthood as a universal path to truth. I didn't even claim that child rearing is necessarily a good or wholesome experience. I simply explained that, for me, it was an experience that altered my perspective on the world.

What I tried to offer was an honest autobiographical account of how my own view of society began to change several years ago. I mentioned three personal experiences that contributed to this change: the experience of raising children, the experience of working in institutions, and the experience of teaching. Given that we're discussing the relation between the Christian faith and society, I don't see why it is ridiculous to admit that experiencing some new aspects of society (these three things were all new to me at the time) might alter one's perspective. Are we meant to get all our theories out of books, and never test them against any of our own experience of what the world is like?

In the kind of critical theory currently in vogue, it is, in fact, customary to tell one's own story as part of an explanation of how one sees things. Such autobiographical material is usually treated with the greatest deference. But apparently the experience of child rearing is beneath contempt and cannot be accepted as a legitimate occasion for changing one's perspective.

Why should that be the case? When I used the hetero-normative code word – children – it triggered an automatic response of hostility and contempt, even though my use of the word was personal and autobiographical. Is this, perhaps, because seminary-educated people have imbibed a critical theory that trains them always to spot the difference between the goodies and the baddies?

2. Institutions

To my remarks on approximate justice, a number of people – not only the kindly Craig Keen but also the inimitable Adam Kotsko – responded that the New Testament points to a very different set of assumptions about God and the world. Craig summed up this objection in his lapidary style:
Ben, if you are saying that on this day you believe that the doctrine of creation, worked out particularly among the children of Abraham in praise of the God who liberated them from Babylonian bondage and then liberated Jesus from imperial slaughter, is a way of articulating the potency lying in wait in extant orders, this is a sad day, it seems to me.
One of Adam's wisecracks made the same point: "I knew I’d found authentic Christianity when I had kids and bought into the institutions – just like Jesus and Paul did."

I understand the appeal of this line of criticism. There is, in the theology of our day, a widespread nostalgia for the first-century Christian experience of marginalisation, dispossession, and persecution. But I think it's quite misleading to compare the plight of the earliest Christians to the situation of the church in western societies. A clear statement of the problem is in H. Richard Niebuhr's 1946 essay on "The Responsibility of the Church for Society". The church's responsibility for society, Niebuhr writes, has many historical roots:
But one highly important root of the sense of obligation is the Christians' recognition that they have done not a little to make the secular societies what they are. In this respect the modern church is in a wholly different position from that which the New Testament church or even the church of Augustine's time occupied. The Christian community of our time, whether or not formally united, is one of the great organizations and movements in civilization; it is one of the oldest human societies; it has been the teacher of most of the nations now in existence. It cannot compare itself with the small, weak company of the early centuries living in the midst of secular societies that had grown up independently of it…. [Modern empires and nation states] were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.
H. Richard Niebuhr was not trying to open an American branch of Radical Orthodoxy. Writing in 1946, he was under no illusions about the legacy of western Christian social order. It is precisely because Christian influence on society has been so deeply problematic that the church cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing from social institutions.

That's broadly how I see our situation today. Triumphalist complacency, prophetic or ironic posturing, the cultivation of an ostensibly pure ecclesial zone – such stances all amount to the same thing, a tragic failure of responsibility for the world as it actually exists in our time.

Personally I think any theology today has to be able to say something about the way Christians engage with the world through institutions. A revolutionary theology that despises institutions as a matter of principle might sound exciting, but it runs the risk of marginalising Christian discipleship from the exact places where it is most sorely needed.

3. Justice

I was surprised that so many readers were disconcerted by my remarks about justice and transcendence. I have already quoted Craig's words above which understood me to be describing the "potency lying in wait in extant orders". Elsewhere, someone spoke of my "glee for existing order"; and many comments expressed shock and disgust that I would so calmly dismiss the quest for absolute justice in this world.

But an appeal to transcendent justice doesn't mean that one gives up on the world. Nor does it mean that things will automatically improve by some magic inner potency. Nor, again, does it mean that everything ought to stay the same. Rather a doctrine of transcendent justice attempts to hold two things in tension. Divine justice supplies a vision for social change; it refers to an absolute criterion against which existing social arrangements can be measured, criticised, and improved. But the transcendence of this justice destroys the presumptions of any given social order, as well as the presumptions of the revolutionary; it passes judgment on all conservative and progressive claims to ultimacy. Because there is a transcendent justice, social improvement is possible; but because it is a transcendent justice, even the best social change is partial and incomplete.

The productive tension between these two poles of justice and transcendence is, as I see it, the main contribution of the Christian faith to a social vision. It is a strange reflection on our times that any of this should require explanation. Don't they teach Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr in Protestant seminaries anymore? Original sin and eschatology? What do they teach?

So as to make it clear that such a tension does not entail family-values quietism or a mindless capitulation to existing order, let me quote the so-called Oscar Romero Prayer, a document that I hope will be considered above reproach on such matters:
It helps, now and then, to step back
And take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

Of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.


[…]

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted
,
Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

Far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.


We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

4. Apocalyptic

I did not set out in the previous post to explain or categorise the different uses of apocalyptic in theology. I was describing my own changing views, so my concern was with the use of apocalyptic themes in some of my own writing over the years. I noted that my own version of theological resentment was heavily indebted to Marxist critical theory, and I explained why I no longer find this satisfactory. But it was not my intention to impugn every Christian scholar who makes use of apocalyptic categories. In particular, there is a whole school of New Testament scholarship devoted to excavating the apocalyptic dimensions of St Paul's thought. One can learn a great deal from the penetrating exegetical studies of writers like Käsemann, Martyn, and Gaventa; such research seeks to provide a sober picture of the world of the New Testament and of the endlessly wondrous mind of St Paul. 

The problem, for me, lies in how one applies such findings to contemporary theological questions. In my own publications in this area, I assumed that one can quite easily replicate St Paul's apocalyptic categories in a contemporary account of the church's relation to western societies. For the reasons stated under #2 above, I no longer believe this to be the case. I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.

In addition, it seems to me that Pauline theology suffers from distortion – and soon begins to take on a gnostic, anti-worldly colouring – when it is synthesised with Marxist critical theory. I don't think it's controversial to point out that a good deal of what is currently called apocalyptic theology involves such a synthesis, either implicitly or as a matter of principle.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Making the audience suffer: Macbeth with Hugo Weaving

The thing about Shakespeare's plays is that they are about human beings. That is where all their interest lies. The plays are interesting to the extent that human beings are interesting. That is why people keep turning out to see the plays four centuries later: to see human beings walking around onstage – talking, loving, killing, dying, and the rest of it.

Anybody who wants to stage Shakespeare has to keep this in mind above everything else. The great and holy vocation of the theatre is to put human beings on the stage and to make them believable. When directors of Shakespeare lose confidence in the ability of human beings to arouse interest, they turn instead to stage gimmicks or self-referential theatricality or the Beauty of Shakespearean Language or some other shoddy substitute. The consequences are dire.

The new Sydney Theatre Company production of Macbeth has everything going for it – innovative staging, funky music, special effects, celebrity casting, soaring soliloquies – everything, in fact, except human interest.

It is as if the director wanted to include all the tricks of the trade without ever really making up his mind about what kind of play he wanted to make. There are bits of grinding minimalism followed by bits of glitzy theatricality, scenes of great dullness followed by scenes of furious overacting. Macbeth is a very claustrophobic play. But instead of seeing a claustrophobic atmosphere evoked through character and action, the hapless audience is forced to sit in cramped plastic chairs behind the stage. Once dutifully seated like this, we are for some time immersed in clouds of smoke so that the stage is barely discernible. The little old lady next to me was choking in distress into her handkerchief. In one scene the curtain closes and the audience find themselves – you guessed it – behind the curtain. It is all perfectly claustrophobic, to be sure, but it is not the claustrophobia of Macbeth. It is an attempt to engineer through technical means what Shakespeare evokes through character and dialogue. 

An example. After Macbeth has murdered Duncan, he meets Lady Macbeth in the dark:
MACBETH: Who's there? What, ho?
LADY MACBETH: [...] My husband!
MACBETH: I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
LADY MACBETH: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did you not speak?
MACBETH: When?
LADY MACBETH: Now.
MACBETH: As I descended?
LADY MACBETH: Ay.
MACBETH: Hark!
The dialogue evokes a sense of crushing, claustrophobic darkness. The two characters seem to meet without meeting, each calling out blindly from within the solipsistic terror of a nightmare. No smoke machine is needed to create the right effect. Even if the play is staged outdoors on a summer's day, the audience becomes wrapped in a suffocating spiritual darkness as the action unfolds.

All that is necessary for this to happen is for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to seem like real people. There has to be a certain chemistry between them. They have to sound like man and wife when they confide in each other. Their murderous conspiracy has to seem, at one level, like an ordinary domestic drama. We have to believe that, in their own disastrous way, they really love each other. Lady Macbeth would sooner dash her baby's brains out than to see her husband's manhood diminished. This is Bad Love, to be sure. But for all its perversion, this powerful relentless feeding of ego upon ego is recognisably human and conjugal and domestic.

In the Sydney Theatre Company production, however, Lady Macbeth is marginalised; some of her most important scenes are left out; the relationship between husband and wife is not developed; each actor plays an individual part, but there is no connection between the characters.

Instead, theatrical gimmicks are relied upon to create the desired effects. Not only smoke machines but also strobe lights; showers of glittering confetti raining down on Macbeth in the last act; the use of the empty theatre as a stage (remember, the audience is seated onstage, looking out on an empty theatre – or, to be more precise, gazing longingly upon hundreds of comfortable empty cushioned seats).

Only a production that lacks all human interest would need so many frenetic attempts to keep the audience interested. Our actors, I am sorry to say, even resort to rubbing food in each other's faces. By the end of it, every last man, woman, and child has had some sort of foodstuff smeared on them, and most of them have also had drinks poured over their heads for good measure. But all the cream pies and confetti in the world are no substitute for character and action. Even Hugo Weaving's flawless delivery of Macbeth's great speeches is no substitute for a Macbeth who interacts with other human beings – his wife, his friends, his subjects, his enemies. Don't get me wrong: Hugo Weaving is a genius of the stage; but he deserved a better production than this.

It is surely noteworthy that the only really interesting moment all evening is the scene in which Macbeth and his wife set the dinner table together. For a few precious moments the whole stage comes to life and we feel that we are looking out at real human beings, since setting a dinner table is exactly the kind of thing that human beings do. In the end, no amount of emotional speechifying, no amount of strobe lighting or confetti, can substitute for the simple dramatic quality of observing human beings behaving humanly with one another onstage.

And, most importantly, no matter how much one might appreciate the spirit of dramatic experimentation, my two hours of hard labour in an avant-garde plastic chair have convinced me that there is ultimately no substitute for the consolations of an ordinary cushioned theatre seat. It is Shakespeare's characters who are supposed to suffer and die, not his audience.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Apocalyptic and creation: why I changed my mind

From time to time I get emails from people who are interested in "apocalyptic" ideas. Over the years I gave various talks and published various papers in this area, and of course I used to blog about it too. The other day a reader emailed me about a blog post from six years ago in which I promoted an apocalyptic approach to the doctrine of creation. I've written a letter in reply, which I'll post here in case others are interested:

Dear N.,

It was about 8 years ago that I got really interested in apocalyptic ideas. I wrote a few papers along these lines. I even went so far as to draft part of a book on creation and apocalypse. The gist of the thing, if memory serves, was to argue that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship. God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape. I don't want to deny that there was some truth in all this. But partial truths can be a dangerous thing. It's like reading the prophets without taking on board the wisdom literature as well.

It's hard to say exactly why I first got interested in apocalyptic ideas. In part, I suppose, it was ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

It seems to me that quite a lot of what passes for philosophy and theology in our time is really an expression of such enraged libido. Marxist ideology, which I cherished for the first decade of my adult life, seems an especially insidious version of the lust to dominate. It is an ideology of resentment against the way things are, mixed with gnostic-magical beliefs that human nature is capable of transfiguration. In its consistent forms this ideology shows itself to be more than willing to destroy human society first so that the transfigured human being can arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

As a young Christian theologian, I imbibed that kind of ideology of resentment – how could anyone in a modern university imbibe anything else? Then subsequently I started casting about for a theological program that would serve this transformation of a disappointing world. Apocalyptic theology seemed like a good fit.

But many things changed in my life. I was raising three young children at the time, and as I became more acclimatised to childhood I also became less tolerant of revolutionary resentment against the world. It is easy to be willing to tear everything down when you do not have children (i.e., the future) to think about. I also got immersed in the work of educational institutions. This gave me an increasing understanding of the modest ways in which real-world improvements can be made within an existing order. I began first to respect and then – my apocalyptic friends will shudder to hear it – even to like institutions and the laborious ways in which they contrive to make the world a little better.

At the same time, I had somehow become a full-time teacher of Christian doctrine. In this setting I began, both inside and outside the classroom, to read and reread the Christian writers of the first five centuries. I came gradually to a completely new appreciation of the function as well as the limits of Christian doctrine. The doctrine of creation, for example, was important not because it solved all the problems in a satisfactory way, but because it held at bay those powerful world-denying gnostic doctrines that were clamouring for attention in the ancient Mediterranean world. The doctrine was important not so much for what it said as for what it made possible.

And the more I studied the ancient sources of the Christian faith, the more I noticed certain lines of continuity between those ancient gnostic doctrines and our modern ideologies of resentment. A withering hatred of existing order; a cynical despair over political and institutional solutions; a naive assumption that human nature is capable of transformation, and that my group has the magic formula to effect the transformation; an attempt to implement a perfect transcendent order within this world – all this the ancient church had opposed, proclaiming a doctrine of creation in protest against the gnostic ideologies of resentment.

Nowadays I see the Christian doctrine of creation as one of the most important ideas in the world. As far as social and political engagement is concerned, I think the doctrine of creation implies four basic convictions about society. (1) That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order; (2) that the church ought to proclaim this transcendent order in a way that reveals the partial goodness, while also exposing the pretensions, of every social order; (3) and that Christians, having renounced all aspirations to become architects of perfect justice in this world, ought to feel free to work for incremental improvements and approximate justice wherever possible, without feeling that such provisional measures are futile; since (4) such imperfect approximations can serve as a muted but nonetheless still audible witness to that transcendent order which Christians call the coming kingdom of God.

Anyways, that's roughly how I see things. You could still call this an "apocalyptic" perspective, insofar as this world is constantly seen against an ultimate eschatological horizon. But as soon as somebody announces that they have a scheme for bringing the horizon a little closer, I would prefer to bid them a good day and to part company. For horizons do not come closer; and apocalyptic incantations do not alter reality but only the minds of those who use them.

Yours sincerely, &c.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Doodlings digitalis

by Kim Fabricius

The kindest people are often people who have experienced great sorrow in their lives. Hence the infinite kindness of God.

Imagine buying a jigsaw puzzle of Jesus. Now open the box. If there aren’t lots of pieces missing, you’ve been ripped off – it can’t be Jesus.

“… nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes). Mark Driscoll is, what, 5’10”ish? Then make that nasty, brutish, and medium-height.

Some of us find it hard to pray. Is it because we cannot still our thoughts and focus our attention? Perhaps. But it may be because we are the kind of people who don’t like asking for help.

I am sometimes asked what book I would recommend to an intelligent enquirer at the border of faith, or to an intelligent believer on the brink of doubt. No question: Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Grayling’s The God Argument. Never has atheism been so self-refuting.

God’s Two Books, Nature and the Bible: atheists don’t know how to read the one, and inerrantists don’t know how to read the other. It is not accidental that poets among them are few.

If the tomb was not empty, I would cease to be a Christian. Likewise if the Chicago Statement or Intelligent Design were not empty.

George Tyrell famously wrote that “The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees … is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” Indeed. And when conservative evangelicals look down the same well, they see – “Hell, that ain’t Jesus, it’s good old (perspective) penal Paul!”

You could say that Penal Substitution is the way that God tried decisively to deal with his anger-management issues. It didn’t work. Hence Plan B: Eternal Damnation.

There are two Holy Grails, the Last Supper Chalice and the Immaculate Autograph. The first, at least, is legendary; the second is entirely fantastical.

If you never question the Bible, the Bible will never question you – and then you are in deep shit.

And God looked down upon the crowd and the cross, the braying and the dying, and said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” And it was so.

When I prepare couples for marriage, and discuss the vows, and come to “till death us do part,” I always tell them to cheer up – it could be longer.

Giles Fraser has suggested that assisted dying is the final triumph of market capitalism – or better, Kaputalism (though its colonisation of fourth-wave feminism is also a quality performance) – but not only because of the apotheosis of choice, also because of its privatisation of suffering.

Another better spelling: Terrortories – as in the “Occupied” (or “Disputed” or “Unsettled” [sic]) Terrortories.

I used to think that God made so much sand for deserts and beaches, for their beauty, bleak or balmy. Now I think it’s for sandbags, for protection, from bullets and bombs, swishing and thudding.

“And then one day I asked myself, ‘How is it going to suit you to be called Brother Crow?’” That’s the eponymous hero Jayber Crow in Wendell Berry’s blessing of a novel, querying his call to become a preacher. I know the feeling: Reverend Fabricius has always seemed to me to be somebody else.

Btw, is there a finer modern American novel on the tender, patient, and suffering grace of God in creation than Jayber Crow? Gilead is as fine, but no finer.

To all ministers troubled by a sense of failure – and your point is?

Researchers in France have just published a study in the journal Science which suggests that crustaceans may be able to experience anxiety. Having consulted its sub-committee on psychological profiling, the PCA’s Mission to the World agency is now planning a crusade called Christ for Crayfish.

All writers fear the blank page, good writers fear the finished one.

I’ve stopped in many and various places, for longer or shorter, in my 65+ years: Great Neck and Huntington for childhood and adolescence; Middletown and Oxford for education; Amsterdam and Madrid for art; Kabul and London for dope; Haslemere for farming and Barth; and for 32 years, Swansea for ministry. Many memories, some cloudy but most still pretty clear, from the happy and holy to the harrowing and humiliating. Most of all, however, I remember that I was younger.

Someone recently asked me, admittedly half-seriously, whether I have made a Bucket List. I answered, full-seriously, that I cannot think of a more pathetic denial – of death, certainly – but, above all, of life. With perhaps one exception: to make the perfect martini. Then again, I’ve been trying to do that for the past 30 years. My point is that our intimations of mortality should refocus our attention on the quotidian, not bewitch us with the prodigious.

As I’ve gotten older, I find I’m not as big a sinner as I used to be. It’s sort of sanctification by attrition: I can’t drink enough to get real drunk anymore, I don’t covet and can’t lust like I used to, and what’s there to be vain or proud about? I reckon if I could live to 150 I’d be damned near as sinless as the Saviour.

BREAKING NEWS: Latest casualties in the invasion of Gaza: Proportion and Discrimination. Just War Theory (c. 400 – 2014): RIP.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Animals in the Index: A review of David Clough

A guest-review by Steve Wright. David Clough, On Animals. Volume 1: Systematic Theology (T&T Clark) 

Like most academics, I rarely find it necessary to read a book cover to cover in order to ridicule or praise it. I have far too little time and far too many books on my shelves to go about reading them all. Fortunately, within the world of theology, reading is optional. For the index is a perfectly succinct list-form summary of a book’s argument. All one has to do is cross-check the number of entries listed under “Barth, Karl” with “election, the doctrine of” and you know what kind of book you have in your hands. Similarly, any book with entries under “language, the poverty of” spills all its secrets out into the open without the need of perusing a single apophatic line from within its chapters.

A good index, however, is like a good waiter: it not only tells you what you will get for dinner, but invites you to sit down and enjoy the aromas of the kitchen while you make your selection. David Clough has written an index like this. Or, rather, I should say that his theology has spilled into his index, for when one peruses the index of his persuasively written book, On Animals, one finds that it has been invaded by animals. “Bacon, Francis” sits just beneath “baboons”; and “Crisp, Oliver” is sandwiched between “creeping things” and “crocodiles”. Just as naturally as most theological books will list “Balthasar, Hans Urs von”, “Barth Karl”, and “Bultmann, Rudolf” in neat alphabetical order, Clough lines up “cats”, “caterpillars”, “cattle”, and “cauliflower” in his index. All of this to say that Clough has produced an index of creatures – critters and all.

In this book, Clough tests one of the core teachings of Christian orthodoxy that goes back at least as far as Basil: when it comes to being, one is either the Creator of all, or one is a creature. Humanity does not occupy an ontologically ambiguous place between the two, Clough observes, but sits firmly on the creaturely side of the divide. Sticking with the core doctrines of the faith, Clough also notes that the significance of the incarnation is not so much that the eternal Word became a human, as that the eternal Word mysteriously crossed the fundamental divide to become a creature. When God takes on flesh, God takes on creatureliness. A manger was the perfect place for the incarnate God to rest.

Despite the focus on animals, Clough has produced a very human book. His reasoning liberates us from the burden of construing the human as anything other than what it is: an animal among fellows. There are always creatures in the index, but we often separate the “Persons” from the “Subjects”. I might even go as far as to claim that separating humans into their own index is a theological move, betraying at least some relative anthropocentrism. Clough favours a “General Index” filled with all the glorious creatures of God’s creation, from red pandas to onions to John Wesley. It is the best kind of index: one that invites you to read the book.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Jesus: the easter interview

by Kim Fabricius

In these days of risibly, embarrassingly clichéd post-game/match interviews with the victors, imagine the BBC’s Sue Barker at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning…

SB:  Jesus, that was awesome, just awesome.  And that boulder – wow!

JC:  Yes, brilliant, Sue, brilliant. A miracle, really.

SB:  Describe to us your feelings at this moment. 

JC:  To be honest, I’m just happy to be here. It’s so [starting to cry] … the feeling is amazing … [collecting himself] …

SB:  On Friday, we all thought it was finished when you cried out, er, “It’s finished!”

JC:  Me too, Sue. But it isn’t over till it’s over. 

SB:  Satan plays hardball, doesn’t he?  

JC:  He sure does. Satan’s a beast. And at torture and execution the Romans are top-drawer. It was gut-check time. I had to dig deep.

SB:  Defence wins championships.

JC:  It wasn’t about defence, Sue. After all, I was nailed to a cross.

SB:  Still, Jesus, your writhing was terrific.

JC:  I’ve got to thank Peter, my coach, for the writhing. All those dawn whipping sessions – they paid off. No pain, no gain. My wailing could have been better, especially with that crown of thorns, but no excuses. It is what it is.

SB:  And the way you stayed calm when the mob and the two thieves taunted you.

JC:  Just the one, Sue. The other was onside. But, mentally, you’ve got to take the crowd out of the game. At the end of the day, it’s all about character, motivation, focus, doing your job, stepping up to the stake. And faith: you gotta believe.

SB:  You’ve taken a lot of criticism for recent performances: that apocalyptic discourse was weird, and Judas – you’ve got to admit you showed poor judgement about Judas. And at Golgotha, it must have been hard with your mum there.

JC:  Yes and no. Mum has always been a huge support … except for that one time … or two … or maybe three. Come to think of it, she was dead against this gig from the get-go. Still, she’s my mum. Anyway, I’d like to thank her for trying to smuggle the chicken soup past the centurion.

SB:  Anyone else you’d like to thank?

JC:  I’d like to thank my father for raising me.

SB:  Anyone else?

JC:  I’d like to thank my Father for raising me. 

SB:  You just said that.

JC:  No, I mean …

SB:  Jesus, I’m sure everybody is dying to know: what was it like in the tomb? It must have been hell.

JC:  Well, yeah, so to speak. But really, Sue, I couldn’t tell you: I was dead.

SB:  Yes, of course… Anyway, now you’re alive. That’s got to be the greatest come-back of all time.

JC:  Well, I dunno. Lazarus may have something to say about that. And Johnny Cash.

SB:  Always humble, hey Jesus? Look, we’ll let you get back to your fans. Just two more questions: any plans for tonight, and what about the future?

JC:  After the ice bath, an MRI, and a few stitches, I guess me and the lads will have a few carafes. Then a fortnight in the Algarve. Then it’s one patibulum at a time.

SB:  Congratulations on a wonderful win. Ladies and gentlemen, Christus Victor!
[Tumultuous applause.]

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