Friday, 30 October 2015

And now for a bit of Reinhold Niebuhr

At the risk of pleasing nobody, I've written a piece for the ABC discussing Christian reactions to a recent speech by Australia's former prime minister Tony Abbott. It's called Love your neighbour: why Tony Abbott is (partly) right and his critics are (partly) wrong. Here's an excerpt:

But nothing is gained when Christian commentators respond to Abbott’s one-sided cynicism with an equally one-sided sentimentality. It’s not enough merely to assert that we must love our neighbours, or to insist that our policies should embody the compassion of Christ’s teaching. Such assertions only confirm the impression that religion has no relevance to the sphere of practical politics.

If Christian commentators want to contribute to political life (and not simply to condemn it), then they will need to say something about how one form of neighbour-love is to be balanced against others. They will need to account for the trade-offs involved in any attempt to create compassionate policies. They will need to explain how imperfect approximations to love can still be worthwhile in spite of their unavoidable costs and failings.

We can avoid cynicism by recognising that neighbour-love is always relevant to politics, even though it cannot directly be translated into policy. For Christians, matters of law and practical politics are always measured against the transcendent standard of Christ's commandment to love.

We can avoid sentimentality by recognising that love is never perfectly achievable in this life. Love is a standard of judgment, a perfect criterion against which every law and policy is measured. The best policies are those that approximate more closely to this transcendent standard. There will always be room for reform and improvement. There will never be occasion for self-righteous posturing, as if we had ever perfectly fulfilled our obligation to love in any given situation.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Faith on the edge of despair: six poems (audio reading)

Christian faith is something more than belief or confidence, and it is probably something less than certainty or an optimism that things will turn out all right. Faith is a particular way of acclimatising oneself to a world marked by futility and despair. Faith knows the joy of the psalms, but it also knows the bitterness of Ecclesiastes. It knows experiences of transcendence, but it also knows that such experiences tend to deceive. To help you ponder this cheerful theme, I've made an audio recording of six short poems by some of my favourite Christian poets:
 
Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"
Thomas Merton, "To the Immaculate Virgin, on a Winter Night" 
T. S. Eliot, "A Song for Simeon"
R. S. Thomas, "In Church"
James McAuley, "In a Late Hour"
Kevin Hart, "The Last Day"

Friday, 23 October 2015

A tweet for every volume of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

Yesterday someone on twitter suggested the idea of tweet-summaries of Barth's Church Dogmatics. Reader, how could I resist? I could not. As well as providing much-needed edification for the twittersphere, it gave me something to do on a long road trip. I was driving all day from Sydney to Melbourne, so I composed the tweets while driving and then gleefully posted them whenever I could find a spot to pull over. As you can easily imagine, an exercise like this adds a dash of excitement to the drudgery of hurtling along a highway at 110 km/hr listening to audiobooks of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky while the thunderstorms come rolling over the plains. So here are the tweets:

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

I/1: Before I ever thought of God, before I opened my mouth to speak, God is, God speaks, and what God says is "God!"

I/2: God's mighty Word is humbly hidden in the human flesh of Jesus, the human words of scripture, and the boredom of the Sunday sermon.

II/1: God's friendly Word is unconditioned by anything in us. That's why God is better than anyone, because God is free to love everyone.

II/2: Why is God so good at freely loving us? Because God had so much practice before we ever existed.

III/1: We were summoned into being by God's freely loving Word. From that day on, God has spared no expense in trying to befriend us.

III/2: Our nature fits God like a glove: God wore it first then let us try it on, and Jesus shows us how to wear it right.

III/3: God's freely loving Word holds the world in being and keeps at bay the dreadful power of nonbeing. (P.S. There are angels.)

III/4: How good it is to be a creature! To be freely ourselves, never more or less, within the constraints that God has lovingly set for us.

IV/1: When I saw how Jesus used his deity to become small and humble for my sake, it took my breath away (and then my pride).

IV/2: When I saw Jesus triumphant in his humanity, it roused me from a deadly boredom: I became freely and fully human, almost a god.

IV/3: The human messenger is the divine Message: Jesus, the living truth that unmasks my self-deception and makes me a disciple of truth.

IV/4: So cheer up! God's faithfulness frees us for faith. God's loving address frees us to answer. God's gift frees us for gratitude.

V: And the rest, my friends, is Mozart.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Postgraduate course on Origen

I'll be teaching a postgraduate seminar next year on the theology of Origen. Right now I'm working on a plan for the twelve weeks, and this is what I've come up with so far:

1. Origen in context: Exhortation to Martyrdom; On Prayer; Eusebius
2. Balthasar anthology: soul
3. Balthasar anthology: Word
4. Balthasar anthology: Spirit
5. Balthasar anthology: God
6. Commentary on John, book 1
7. Commentary on John, book 2
8. Commentary on John, books 4-6
9. Commentary on John, book 10
10. Commentary on Song of Songs
11. Homilies on Song of Songs
12. Origen the educator: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Address of Thanksgiving to Origen

On this plan, students would be required to read Balthasar's Origen: Spirit and Fire (Catholic University of America Press), Exhortation to Martyrdom (Classics of Western Spirituality series), Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (Ancient Christian Writers series), and Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Volume 1 (Fathers of the Church series).

I am still in two minds about whether to use Balthasar's anthology or Origen's First Principles. I am habitually averse to anthologies, and it makes obvious sense to stick with First Principles. But the Balthasar volume is so rich in content, and so artful in arrangement, that I suspect it would serve students better than First Principles, especially as preparation for reading the commentaries in the later weeks of the course. Origen's distinctive blend of exegesis, doctrine, and spirituality is still present in First Principles, but it's much more pronounced and more visible in Balthasar's anthology. The worst mistake for students approaching Origen for the first time would be to assume a division between something called "theology" (in First Principles) and something called "exegesis" (in the commentaries), and, perhaps, a third thing called "spirituality" (in On Prayer etc).

What do you think, reader? Have any of you done a course like this? Any ideas for improvement? Any suggestions regarding the choice of texts?

I leave you with an amazingly apt and vivid description of Origen from Balthasar's introduction to Spirit and Fire (pp. 2-3):  

He himself hardly ever wrote, but dictated, practically day and night, tirelessly, to a team of stenographers. Thus his works ... are really only the sound of a voice. But it is a voice that drives straight through everything, ... with a cool, unapproachable intellectual restraint that has never again been equalled. It is not the voice of a rhetorician ..., for this voice is not even trying to persuade; nor is it the enthusiastic voice of a poet ...; it is too brittle, too dry and plain for that, even to the point of poverty.... Everything here is unpremeditated, unforced, and expressed with a modesty that never ceases to amaze.... Not a trace of the Augustinian pathos which, without asking, breaks open the doors of the heart.... But no less distant is the sagacious and, in the best sense of the word, humanistic balance of the great pastoral bishop Basil. The voice of the Alexandrian is more like that glowing, rainless desert wind that sometimes sweeps over the Nile delta, with a thoroughly unromantic passion: pure, fiery gusts. Two names come to mind in comparison: Heraclitus and Nietzsche. For their work too is, externally, ashes and contradiction, and makes sense only because of the fire of their souls which forces their unmanageable material into a unity and, with a massive consumption of fuel, leaves behind a fiery track straight across the earth. Their passion, however, stems only from the Dionysian mystery of the world. But here, in Origen, the flame shoots out and darts upward to the mystery of the super-worldly Logos-WORD which fills the face of the earth only to be itself baptized in this fire, to be ignited and transformed into the Spirit.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Dumb and dumber: a sermon

Oh dear. James and his little brother John. The sons of Zebedee, known as the “men of thunder” (Mark 3:17). What dudes! But as Mark Twain said: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is the lightning that does the work.” But lightning – enlightenment – is just what, in James and John, is conspicuous by its absence. It did no work, it was unemployed. The “dudes of thunder” were Dumb and Dumber. Astonishingly so. Come along, let’s follow them following Jesus in Mark.

Recall that James and John, along with Simon and Andrew, were the first folk that Jesus called (Mark 1:19-20). They were with him from the get-go. From kindergarten they sat at the front of the class, teacher’s pets. On the occasion when Jesus went to Jairus’ house and healed his daughter, the only disciples he took with him were Simon, and James and John (Mark 5:37). When Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured – a sneak preview of the resplendent resurrection itself – again, the only disciples he took with him were Simon, and James and John (Mark 9:2). So far, so good.

But then the next we hear of John, speaking for his big brother too, he’s boasting to Jesus about how they got heavy with a freelance ghost-buster, telling him to stop his exorcising and bugger off because he wasn’t in “our” gang (Mark 9:38). How dare an outsider use Jesus’ name! But Jesus gave short shrift to such a monopolistic claim on miracles (Mark 9:39), a claim that was especially ludicrous given that just a few verses earlier the disciples themselves had failed miserably to heal a boy with an evil spirit (Mark 9:17-18). “Anyone who is not against us is for us!” Jesus exclaimed (Mark 9:40). James and John – the first anti-ecumenists, the prototypes of all Christians who think they have exclusive rights to name the Name.

So the stage is set for things to go from bad to worse – in our passage (Mark 10:35-45). Before, it was in-group resentment at “outsiders”; now it is rivalry among the “insiders” themselves. James and John want a favour from Jesus: they want him to give them the “big seats”, to his left and right, in his glorious kingdom, to appoint them (if you like) Foreign and Home Secretary in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. An invidious request, to be sure – and reflecting so poorly on the pair that Matthew, in his version of the event, puts it in the mouth of their mother (“They’re such good boys, Jesus”).

But it’s worse than embarrassing when you look at the passage immediately preceding ours (Mark 10:32-34). It is the third and final prediction of the passion, the third and final time Jesus has spoken of what’s going to happen when they get to Jerusalem: his betrayal to the Jewish authorities, his condemnation by the Roman administration, his torture and his death. James and John have just heard this, Jesus’ explicit renunciation of social and political power, and yet they ask Jesus – for social and political power! Imagine our Lord’s irritation, exasperation as he listens to two-thirds of his inner circle.

Characteristically, Jesus answers their question with a counter-question: “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? Can you be baptised in the way that I am going to be baptised?” Again, he is speaking of his death. But how interesting: in doing so Jesus takes James and John back to where it all began, just before he met them and called them – to his baptism; and then forwards to where it will all end, just before he leaves them – to the Last Supper, to the cup he will drink – to the dregs. Can they take the dip? Can they take the sip? “The question is of course rhetorical, but Mark cannot resist [the] sarcasm. Oh yes, say James and John; no problem” (Ched Myers). And, actually, forwards even further – from bitter sarcasm to bitterest irony – Mark is such a clever writer: for who and where will there finally be one at the right and one at the left of Jesus? The two condemned criminals hanging on either side of his cross. Some throne, some distinction.

But that’s not the end of this episode. The other ten disciples hear about James and John trying to gazump them, and they’re troubled. So, kudos for them? Hardly! For they are not cut up by the request itself – oh no – but at the fact that James and John have tried to put one over on them. They are envious. Their cry isn’t “Don’t be stupid!” but “It’s not fair!” All twelve want the trappings of privilege and power. All twelve want the key positions on the front bench. None of them has his mind right, his head straight. None of them feels Jesus. Dumb and Dumber speak for – and take the rap for – all the dummies.

Jesus settles them down and tries again. Yes, it’s all about power. In the world, Jesus says, people in authority throw their weight around. Look at any government, any organisation. Is it not so? People take positions of leadership and what happens, always and everywhere? They get a little power, it goes to their heads, and they want more. And more. Power is a drug, an addiction: you’ve got to have it, and inevitably in bigger and stronger doses. It takes over. It corrupts. You think you have the power; in fact, the power has you. That’s Jesus’ analysis. Is it not so?

But, Jesus says – emphatically – that’s not the way it is in my community. First, as we’ve learned, the boundaries of the Jesus group are porous, permeable, not patrolled and policed. And second, the Jesus group is not authoritarian but egalitarian. But here’s the thing – and here is where Jesus’ analysis gets really interesting: equality is actually a very unstable relationship. It’s like a seesaw: just as you get to a balance, up goes one end and down goes the other. So how to keep the “equal” in “equality”? Counter-intuitively, by each ceding authority to the other. Jesus says: You must be a servant – literally, a “slave” – to each other. It is not that there is to be no leadership in the Jesus group, but it is that it will be a leadership not of domination but of subordination. Politics as usual? No, politics as radically unusual. As unusual as the Servant King himself, who came not to be served but to serve, to the point of laying down his life for his friends – and for his foes too.

Do James and John, and the other ten, do they finally get it? Well, what happens next? The incident of the healing of a blind beggar on the approach to Jerusalem (Mark 10:46-52). Bartimaeus cries out for Jesus to take pity on him. The crowd – which includes the disciples – tells him to shut up. Jesus tells him to speak up. He asks Bartimaeus, as he asked James and John, “What can I do for you?” But whereas Dumb and Dumber asked for positions of privilege and power, which Jesus denied them, Bartimaeus asks simply for his sight, which Jesus gives him. Then Bartimaeus follows him. Is not the point clear? Only if we renounce the will to power – that is to say, only if we recognise our spiritual blindness and seek true vision, the vision of majesty in meekness, of worthiness in weakness – only then do we have the mind of Christ.

Next stop, last stop, Jerusalem. There Jesus will again speak specifically to James and John (with Andrew and Peter), about the future, about the Big Trouble to come – “Be prepared, lads!” (Mark 13:3ff.). Dumb and Dumber, I imagine, are as dumfounded as ever. For, finally, after his last meal, Jesus will take them (with Peter) to Gethsemane, looking for their encouragement and support in his hour of need and anguish. No imagination necessary here: they fall asleep (though I imagine them snoring). And then, when the cops arrive, with the rest, Dumb and Dumber do a runner.

Yes, oh dear. And now here we are, the descendants of Dumb and Dumber. And what dire straits we are in: a church in decline, even freefall. Once the national church was a powerful institution; once the local church was at the centre of the community. Now look at us: marginalized, ignored, aging, tired. We feel vulnerable and powerless, yes? Allelulia! God be praised! Vulnerable is exactly what Jesus calls us to be, for it’s in situations of powerlessness that God does his thing. Only those who haven’t been paying attention and listening to Jesus can be dumb and dumber enough to think that God is working his purpose out in the corridors of power, that it is nations, armies, and the Fortune 500 that are the agents of God’s will in the world, or indeed that it is the mega-churches with their CEOs and performance-enhancing gospel that are the kingdom’s final hope in a post-Christian culture. Don’t you believe it!

Just be faithful. Do what Jesus did and what he tells us to do. Forget greatness. Didn’t Jesus? Redefine power as vulnerability. Didn’t Jesus? Reject the ways of manipulation, coercion, certainly violence, and the speed that is often the fuel of violence – festina lente. Didn’t Jesus? Welcome the stranger and work with the willing, however odd or outlying. Didn’t Jesus? Be kind, gentle, and patient. Hasn’t the Lord been kind, gentle, and patient with you? Yes, just be faithful, faithful to Jesus. What he did and tells us to do – it’s not rocket science. Even Dumb and Dumber, tradition tells us, finally got it. Kingdoms will rise and fall, churches will come and go. But Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. So tell me: what’s the worry, what’s the hurry? Go slow, keep faith! Remember: “Winter under cultivation / Is as arable as Spring” (Emily Dickinson).

Thursday, 15 October 2015

On not living in America

There comes a time in a man’s life when he begins to regret that he does not live in America. For me that time is approximately five o’clock weekdays. When that feeling strikes the best cure is to get me to the America-themed bar just one train stop away from home. Faux-leather red booths, brass rails, big red hanging lights, plastic menus and ketchup bottles on every table, sports games on TV screens above the bar, walls plastered with sports regalia and American kitsch.

There, amid all that American glory, I find a seat, I solemnly contemplate a pint of American pale ale, I order something from the menu, barbecue beef ribs or burgers with onion rings or buffalo wings with celery sticks and blue cheese dipping sauce. Why is it so hard to get blue cheese sauce outside the fifty states? Long have I pondered the question but the answer still evades me. All I know is that at five o’clock I can walk through the doors and ask for buffalo wings and they will be brought to me on a platter with a dipping dish of blue cheese sauce.

If I am able to look up from studying my buffalo wings I see, on the big flat screen above me, the men in white throwing the ball and hitting it and running and catching and again throwing the ball. I have never been to a baseball game, it is not something I have ever liked or understood. But I feel a certain ineffable contentment to see them playing while I sit here with my honey-coloured pale ale gleaming in the glass and the blue cheese dipping sauce dripping from my fingers. I watch them hitting and running and catching and I raise a buffalo wing to my waiting lips and say to myself: America.

If I lived in America then I suppose, at a certain hour of the afternoon, I would seek out a glass of Australian lager although it is a drink I never really liked. In time I would be brought to such a pitch of nostalgia that I would even go out of my way to get my hands on that most ubiquitous and most repulsive of all Australian foods, the corner store meat pie. And as I raised my beer glass with pie-stained greasy fingers I would gaze up at the big flat screen to see the men in white standing around doing nothing, which is to say playing cricket, a game that I have never really liked or understood, and with a proud tear in my eye I would say to myself: Australia.

But I am already in Australia. So today the pale ale is bubbling in my soul as I lean back into my red faux-leather seat and slowly, with infinite deliberation, eat America, one blue cheese-dipped buffalo wing at a time.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The spiritual vision of Macbeth


1. What if nightmares, and not the waking world, were real? What if the truth of human nature were seen not in love but in madness and murder? What if the love-instinct itself were only an instrument of a deeper, murderous instinct?

2. Harry Jaffa has called Macbeth “a moral play par excellence”. No. It is not a moral but a metaphysical play. In Macbeth, nightmare and murder are elevated to the level of transcendent realities. In an otherwise excellent review of the new film, Travis LaCouter wants to draw edifying conclusions from the play’s “strong moral warning.” But that is a mistake. The only way to respond morally to the nightmare world of Macbeth would be to despair and die.

3. Macbeth is not a Christian play. Christianity understands evil as a privation of the good. Macbeth is about positive evil. Its theme is murder as a manifestation of positive evil. In the play, evil exists. It extends itself. It grows. It devours the good. It has a horrible “generative” quality (as LaCouter nicely puts it in the same review). It is not like ordinary darkness – a privation of light – but like a vacuum that can suck the light out of a room, leaving the human heart blinded and confused.

4. I think it was Harold Goddard who observed that The Tempest shows human beings in heaven, while King Lear shows them in purgatory and Macbeth shows them in hell. That is true: but the hell of Macbeth is not a Christian hell.

5. Milton’s Satan is a notoriously lovable character because his vices are so recognisably human: pride, ingratitude, a “sense of injured merit,” an incorrigible independence of spirit. He is cast into darkness but he continues to glow with a residual spiritual light, a tragic but also fundamentally charming reminder of his created status as an angel of God. The weird sisters in Macbeth are not former angels. They are not creatures fallen from grace. They are agents of a positive evil. They shine, so to speak, with an uncreated spiritual darkness. Faced with them, one would turn and run for refuge into the arms of Milton’s Satan. At least the latter is part of creation. At least he stands in some relation to God. Not so the weird sisters.

6. Lady Macbeth is the most disturbing character in literature because in her the maternal instinct and the murder instinct are united. She would sooner dash the brains out of her suckling infant than to see her husband draw back from murder at the appointed hour: and she not only feels this, but confides it to her husband. In Lady Macbeth, the instinct to destroy life is stronger than the instinct to engender it. When the Greek heroine Medea is abandoned by her husband, she avenges herself by murdering her (i.e. his) own children: she does evil for the sake of love. But it is very different with Lady Macbeth, who seems to love for the sake of evil. Forced to choose between having Medea for a mother or Lady Macbeth, I would prefer to take my chances with Medea. She has human instincts at least. Better to be killed for love than to be loved for the sake of evil.

7. Does good triumph over evil in the end? In the last act, the castle is conquered and Macbeth is justly killed. But this limited theodicy has to be set within the wider metaphysical frame. The weird sisters have prophesied Macbeth’s rise to power and have riddled his downfall. Everything happens just as they have foretold. Everything goes exactly according to plan. For all we know, the triumph of Malcolm and Macduff might be the transition to even greater evils, the next necessary step in Evil’s ineluctable advance.

8. In Shakespeare’s history plays, the endless cycle of the rise and fall of kings is shown to be meaningless: power is meaningless. In Macbeth, one perceives with horror that the cycle of power is not meaningless after all but is evidence of a cruel and malignant design, a sort of inverted providence. In King Lear, the cycle of power is seen to be redeemable: the exquisite vision of Lear and Cordelia singing like two birds in a cage as they lovingly, lazily discuss the rise and fall of the mighty. At that fleeting moment, just before Cordelia is killed and Lear dies of grief, the cycle of power is glimpsed from a redeemed perspective. It has become an affectionate plaything, material for loving conversation between a father (once a king) and a daughter (once estranged). History, in itself, is still meaningless but it has been marked by love.

9. But the redemptive vision of Lear cannot be projected on to Macbeth. In Macbeth, the cycle of power is also seen from a transcendent point of view: from the perspective of the weird sisters. Here is the real thing to fear, not that history might turn out to be meaningless but that it might turn out to be designed.

10. The redemptive vision glimpsed in King Lear is set out fully in The Tempest. If the Christian message turns out to be true, then the final truth of things will be the marriage festivities of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the eternal joy of Ariel who sings forever within the tiny folds of a flower. If Christianity is mistaken, then the best thing that could happen would be to discover that Shakespeare’s history plays were true, and that history is merely meaningless. The worst that could happen would be if Macbeth were true, and what we had mistaken for meaninglessness were actually the cunning designs of murdering spirits who toy with human lives for reasons that we can never guess – if there can be reasons in a nightmare.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Diddly doodlings

“iPhones are the Windows of the soulless.”

Just think, if Adam and Eve had iPhones, none of this would ever have happened. And if the centurion at the cross had one, we’d not only have his confession, we’d have a celebrity selfie to go with it.

On a good day, a writer faces a blank page, a word-welcoming white. On a bad day, a writer faces a blank page, a word-swallowing abyss.

Never trust a theologian who doesn’t read poetry and novels: he is likely to have delusions of clarity, control, and closure; that is, he is likely to be an ideologue.

“I asked myself whether in present-day America the times were propitious to honour a new president, … bringing honour to himself and prosperity to all Americans…. So now, left lifeless, America is waiting … [for someone] to save her from the barbarous cruelties and outrages…. And I cannot express with what love he would be welcomed in all those states which have suffered from foreign inundations, with what thirst for vengeance, with what resolute loyalty, with what devotion and tears.” —Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, anticipating the advent of Donald Trump, in Il Principe, XXVI, “Exhortation to liberate America from the barbarians”

How does one explain the huge following of the political illusionist currently leading Republican hopefuls for the presidency? Trump l'œil.

So Rob Bell has been on “The Life You Want” tour with his new guru Oprah, exploring the interface of New Age science and Christianity. According to Religion Dispatches, Bell’s talks are “full of dizzying analogical jumps: dark matter is a metaphor for the hidden wounds in our past; the expansion of the universe affirms a progressive Christian vision of universal love; the physics of emergence invite us to self-transcend.” Oh dear. I guess John Piper would call it “Farewell, Rob Bell: the Encore Tour” – and follow with a smug “I Told You So Tour” of his own.

Suggested new blog title for an eminent contributor at First Oughts: In Reno Veritas.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “natural law theory offers the most common intellectual defense for differential treatment of gays and lesbians.” Ah, Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he is doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act of conformity with natural law.”

First Things: “America's most influential journal of religion and pubic life.”

There is such a Slopean* earnestness and piety to so many of the SSM screeds of  traditionalists that I was quite tickled by the doxological peroration of “Rebuilding Marriage Culture” by Ryan T. Anderson: “Pope Benedict was right when he said the lives of the saints are the best evangelists. The same thing is true when it comes to marriage. The beauty and splendour of a happy family is our most eloquent testimony.” Kind of Hallmark Greeting Card theology.
*“As he [Mr. Slope] walks through the streets, his very face denotes his horror of the world's wickedness; and there is always an anathema lurking in the corner of his eye” (Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers).

On the other hand, fellow pastors, what do you say to a couple who are having serious marital problems, perhaps thinking of separating or divorcing? You tell them to read Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons (or perhaps, more recently, The Beginner’s Goodbye), with its eloquent, poignant, and comic witness to the quotidian dysfunctionality of marriage and family – chaotic, stressful, absurd, and yet, if you’re lucky, while lacking “beauty” and “splendour”, surprisingly grand and fulfilling. “Then,” you tell the couple, “get back to me.”

When my 3-year-old granddaughter Scarlett stays with us, after kisses I always ask her, “What’s it going to be today, kiddo, Yes-stuff or No-stuff?” She invariably exclaims, “Yes-stuff!” – and then proceeds to punctuate the day by impersonating Barth replying to Brunner: “Nein!” Francis has summarised his papal project by saying “Let’s be the church of Yes, not No.” Papa, Grandpa feels you.

As for the pope’s conservative opponents, well, they remind me of “Momma” in Sturgill Simpson’s song “Living the Dream”: “she thinks mercy’s overrated.”

Not “trickle-down” but “tinkle-down” economics is, sub specie pauperium, the reality of deregulated capitalism.

The US doesn’t have a race problem. No, we’re “racially challenged”, we have a “race opportunity.”

“Live the Dream”? With my dream-life? I’d either be incarcerated or sectioned.

It is a most diabolical irony that religious people who are always banging on about the devil are themselves quite demonically possessed.

Look in the mirror. If you don’t see your mother and/or father, you need glasses.

A guy calling himself Demon describes the denizens of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th circles of hell as follows. 2nd Circle: Those who are overcome with lust/the need to have sex 24/7/365. 3rd Circle: Gluttons/people who eat 24/7/365. 4th Circle: Those who spend a shit load of money on shit they don't need. Sounds to me like Los Angeles.

Proposed evangelical bumper sticker: “Jesus Is My Plea Bargain!”

The New York Yankees will certainly be in hell. Their punishment: no other teams to play, while watched by sell-out crowds of Peter Enns.

Of T. S. Eliot, Hemingway said, “… he can kiss my ass … he never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.” It was indeed rather wussy that Tom, who grew up in the baseball towns of St. Louis and Boston, and who had such a keen eye for the artefacts of popular culture, never alludes to the Game – not even in his later religious poetry! As for his earlier poems, well, someone who writes about “the taking of a toast and tea”, not “the calling for a Coke and crackerjacks”, and about April being the “cruellest” month, not the “kindest” – well, the uber-Anglicised Eliot can kiss my, er, arse too!

Ask me who I am and I will tell you my story, of course. But you must understand that the genre is biographical fiction. The last thing you should expect from me is reliable narration. And that goes double for my “faith story”, for any “faith story”, from three-hankie to whoop-and-holler. As if I were transparent to myself; as if my inner life were lie-proof; as if sincerity precluded, rather than invited, self-deceit. As if some testimonialists weren’t the finest of fantasists.

Another birthday is looming. Curses mounting, counting blessings. I’d miss my prime if I’d ever had one.

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