Saturday, 27 September 2014
Thursday, 25 September 2014
White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. I think it was Big Bill Broonzy who used to sing, "I Feel So Good." … White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Sunday, 21 September 2014
Friday, 19 September 2014
Without doubt, one of the greatest 20th century novelists writing in English was Graham Greene. He was also one of the most popular: his prose was lucid, his plots were gripping, and as a “writer who happened to be Catholic” (he hated the term “Catholic writer”), he wrote compellingly about the human condition with theological insight as well as psychological depth, exploring the perennial themes of good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt.
One of my favourite Greene novels is Monsignor Quixote, published in 1982 (I read it during my first month as a minister). Called “a fable for our times”, it’s an affectionate pastiche of Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote. It describes the exploits of a small-town priest, unexpectedly made a monsignor by the Pope (“what strange stirring of the Holy Spirit,” observes his resentful bishop), as he travels around Spain in his Seat 600, tilting at windmills, accompanied by his ex-mayor friend nicknamed “Sancho” (what else!), who happens to be a communist. As you might imagine, their conversations are, well, interesting, as the churchman and the atheist not only argue but are forced to re-examine their own beliefs.
One of the funniest scenes in the novel finds Father Quixote in a pub toilet with a man who wants to make his confession. “Never before had he heard a confession in such surroundings. He had always been seated in that box like a coffin … [So] It was almost automatically that he took refuge in the only box available and sat down on a closed lavatory.” It turns out that the man is an undertaker who has stolen the brass handles off the coffin in which he had buried a priest that morning.
“Father Quixote thought: How many times I have felt guilty as he does without knowing why. Sometimes he envied the certitude of those who were able to lay down clear rules.… Himself he lived in a mist, unable to see a path, stumbling.… He said, ‘Don’t worry about such little things. Go home and have a good sleep. Perhaps you have stolen.… Do you think God cares so much about such a small thing like that? He has created a universe.… You have stolen two brass handles – don’t feel so important. Say you are sorry for your pride and go home.’”
Then the priest goes back to the bar. “What on earth have you been up to?” asks Sancho. “Practicing my profession,” Quixote replies. “In a lavatory?” “In a lavatory, in a prison, in a church. What’s the difference?”
Good question: What’s the difference? Is there any? Is a confessional holier than a khazi? What, indeed, is “holiness”?
In the Bible, one opposite of holy is “unclean” – like a lavatory. The Pharisees in particular were sticklers about “purity”, moral as well as ritual. They had a defensive notion of sanctity: pollution is contagious. Contact with the visibly sick and the obviously immoral – with lepers, for example, or “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) – no way! Don’t touch, don’t talk, keep your distance! Hence the fastidiousness and the fearfulness of their faith. Jesus, by contrast, had an offensive notion of sanctity: it is not stain or sin but goodness – but grace – that is catching. Hence the robustness and the fearlessness of his own faith.
The Reformer Marin Luther also had this bold and feisty faith. He once wrote to an uptight upright colleague (Philip Melanchton): “Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, joke, even commit sin in defiance and contempt of the devil, in order not to give him the opportunity to make us scrupulous about small things.” Yet does not being “scrupulous about small things” – Father Quixote’s “little thing[s]” – doesn’t this sum-up the nit-picking piety of so much church culture, so fussy, prudish, mischiefless, so downright boring – and so obstructive to mission? You’ve heard of “born-again” Christianity: this is “yawn-again” Christianity.
What is holiness? Can God be found in a lavatory? How interesting that Luther claimed that his own theological breakthrough – justification by faith alone – came to him – you guessed it – in the WC! God is Lord – Lord of the loo too!
Perhaps, then, punctilious notions of purity and probity have little to do with real holiness, the offensive holiness of Jesus. Perhaps in focussing on little sins we miss the big ones, the weightier matters of justice, the weightiest matter of grace. Perhaps such a focus leads to defensive strategies of exclusion, as contemporary Pharisees police the borders of the church to keep out “the unclean” and “the unsound”. Perhaps what we often take to be beyond the moral or doctrinal pale has less to do with God’s righteousness and more to do with our own pathologies of rectitude. Indeed one reviewer of Monsignor Quixote (Robert Towers) suggests that “The rejection of [all] dogmatic authority … is the presiding theme of the book.” Not quite: for ultimately the novel’s “presiding theme” is the kindness of God, incarnate in weakness and doubt, in this hapless little priest, yet counter-intuitively triumphant over the malice and corruption of Grand Inquisitors in church and state alike.
Monsignor Quixote will die from wounds received when, shot at by two Guardia, his little Seat crashes. Yet his atheist friend will muse that “the love he had begun to feel for Father Quixote seemed now to live in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long he wondered, with a kind of fear …?” With a kind of faith, be it the size of a mustard seed, we may answer: forever. For God is love, incarnate in Christ, stronger than death, and, yes, eternal.
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
We've been discussing the relation between community and institution in my ecclesiology class. In this week's class I tried to summarise the issues by explaining the way institutions can be more or less aligned with the teaching of Christ – here's a 15-minute audio snippet from the lecture:
Following this account of "institutional conversion", I suggested three different types of Christian discipleship in relation to institutions:
1. Conversion through participation: attempting to align an institution more closely with the teaching of the gospel. Generally this is possible where the founding purpose of an institution was derived from the gospel. Examples: hospitals, schools, law, welfare agencies (as explained in the audio snippet above) – in fact, most major Western social institutions.
2. Contradiction through participation: working within an institution in a way that reveals the contradiction between the gospel and the values of that institution. Generally this is necessary where the founding purpose of an institution directly contradicts the teaching of the gospel. Examples: a Christian working in a casino cannot seek to align that institution to the gospel, but can embody the teaching of Christ through a life that abstains completely from gambling and the glorification of luck. Such a life bears witness to the moral world of the gospel in contradiction to the moral world of the institution. I know of pacifist Christians who serve as military chaplains in the same spirit: they seek to serve their military institution faithfully in a way that nevertheless bears witness to the contradictory values of the gospel.
3. Contradiction through coercion: using social power to coerce an institution into altering its aims or practices; here the gospel is revealed as judgment on an institution and its goals. Examples: the use of parliamentary processes in the abolition of slavery in England; or current organisations like Not for Sale and Stop the Traffik, which use combined strategies of law, lobbying, education, and corporate support to effect social change. In such cases, Christians make use of some social institutions (law, media, etc) in an attempt to constrain, or even to dismantle completely, an institution that is believed to be the cause of unequivocal social harm.
OK, I know this schematic outline is far from perfect, and I know that actual institutions are more complicated, both in their goals and in their structures, than this outline suggests. But without some differentiated account of institutions and their relationship to the Christian community, I don't see how we can even begin to reflect responsibly on Christian vocation in our world. I've come to believe that sweeping theological dismissals of institutions are a menace to Christian discipleship.
Saturday, 13 September 2014
2. Revolution may be divided into two main types. Fast Revolution refers to the overthrow of political authority by a popular movement. Slow Revolution refers to the deep transformation of social institutions from within. The first type of revolution can occur overnight while the second occurs over several generations.
3. It is not advisable for any social theory to stipulate the precise conditions under which Fast Revolution would be justified. When dealing with exceptions to the rule, it is best not to try to regulate them within the bounds of a theory. However, a Christian theory of society ought to have a presumptive preference for Slow Revolution over Fast Revolution, and for stability over disorder, even while allowing that Fast Revolution might be legitimate in certain exceptional circumstances.
4. Fast Revolution may further be divided into two types: a popular revolt against political authority, and the overthrow of a bad ruler by subordinate lawful authorities. The first is an act of rebellion, the second an act of political responsibility. Calvin allowed for the second type – the defeat of tyranny through, and for the sake of, law. But he believed the first type is impermissible since lawlessness is an even greater evil than injustice. Christians, he noted, are able to live faithfully within many different kinds of social orders, including very unjust ones.
5. For the most part, Christianity has been a "revolutionary" force in society only in the sense of a Slow Revolution. The Christian message has the capacity to transform a society through the gradual reform of human relationships and institutions over many successive generations.
6. Historically, Slow Revolution has proved much more lastingly transformative than popular movements of Fast Revolution. In the great modern revolutionary movements, an initial period of terror and bloodshed is generally followed by a return to pre-revolutionary structures with minor modifications. As Crane Brinton has said of the French Revolution, "The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage" (Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution).
7. Distinct from all these types of revolution is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not rebellion against political authority but an act of political responsibility in which some particular law is broken for the sake of another (more basic or more important) law, or for the sake of some widely shared value in a society. Christians have a long and illustrious history of civil disobedience. Martyrdom involved the dual act of submission to lawful authority (i.e. submitting to a penal sentence) and disobedience to the same authority (i.e. refusing to participate in the imperial cult). Even such an extreme form of civil disobedience was carried out on behalf of, and not against, the existing social order.
8. Where Christians have refused to participate in certain institutions, they have done so not in a spirit of rebellion but as a form of deeper social solidarity. Early hellenistic critics claimed that Christians posed a threat to the social order because of their refusal to serve in the army. Origen replied: "We help the emperor in his extremities by our prayers and intercessions more effectively than do the soldiers…. In this way we overcome the real disturbers of the peace, the demons. Thus we fight for the emperor more than the others, though we do not fight with him, nor at his command" (Origen, Contra Celsum).
9. Thus throughout its history the church has proved to be an "unreliable ally" in every social order (Karl Barth). As civilisations rise and grow old and eventually sink into ruin and decay, the Christian community renews itself continually through its gospel of a transcendent order of righteousness and peace.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
A hymn by Kim
(Tune: Drakes Broughton)
Migrant Jesus, at the border,
refugee of fear and hate,
you’re a threat to law and order,
nightmare of the nation-state.
Child of Israel, fleeing soldiers,
from the Jordan to the Nile,
were your parents passport-holders,
were you welcomed with a smile?
Home from Egypt, Spirit-breathing,
in the towns of Galilee,
how you had the people seething
when you preached the Jubilee.
At the margins, far from centre,
where you met the ostracised,
even friends weren’t keen to enter
conversations that you prized.
Ease our fears, forgive our hatred
of the other and the odd;
help us see the single-sacred:
face of stranger – face of God.
Migrant Jesus, at the border –
Dover Beach or Rio Grande –
Greetings, sister! Welcome, brother!
Make this place your promised land.
Saturday, 6 September 2014
Friday, 5 September 2014
What St. Egregious said, both about “low-hanging fruit” (or, better, cracking red bopple nuts with a sledgehammer) – and one might add bulverism – and also about Kate Dugan’s measured yet incisive intervention.
Personally, mate, your first two posts on apocalyptic, creation, and social vision came as a bit of a shock, but so high is your stock in my theological portfolio that they forced me, urgently, to re-examine my own mind on the matter. However, I quickly concluded that your take on thinking and living apocalyptically is unrecognisable to me. (That is, if I read you rightly – I’m still not sure that I do; or, as it were, if you not only mean what you say – of course you do – but also say what you mean.)
In my take, the auto-apocalypsis (cf. your beloved Origen!) Jesus of Nazareth – his life and teaching, his cross and resurrection – neither withdraws us from political and social practices nor tempts us to build them into the New Jerusalem. Rather the Crucified and Risen One reveals them as social ecologies of brokenness in which he is working his white magic of redemption against the black arts of Sin, the Devil, and Death, while calling and empowering us to bear public, parabolic witness to the New World hidden here in pockets but on its way in fullness.
The deal, then, is that, as Christians, we should both radically critique institutions (family, government, industry, university, etc. – and especially the church!) with the principalities-and-powers discernment and protest of a Stringfellow, and also, eschewing smug gnostic detachment and engaging the charism of agency, patiently, imaginatively, and hopefully work to remodel them with the broken-middle commitment of a Gillian Rose. There are no secular-free zones and the kosmos, not just the ecclesia, is where Christians practice the freedom of obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. I’d rather fail, fail again, and maybe fail better (Beckett) over Jesus’ “apocalyptic categories” than be a successful practitioner of Brother Reinhold’s “Christian realism”.
Go on, then – disagree with your elderly theological alter ego who has spent a lifetime in ministry, with plenty of exasperation but no resentment, and who, along the way, has also raised two kids!
Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Why don't you just be entirely honest with us? The real reason why you've changed your stance is because you've realized that you have a huge vested interest in keeping the status quo. I mean, you can say it's your kids and the stockholm syndrome you've developed toiling away for the system, but really at the end of the day, it's your desire to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle. Ahh, how nice it must be!