Thursday, 11 May 2017

Duodenal doodling

Nietzsche’s excellent question as to why, if Christians are redeemed, they don’t look redeemed, is more excellently answered by Evelyn Waugh: “Think what I would look like if I were not a Christian.”

Donald Trump has finally revealed his favourite Bible passage. “It’s from the Book of Job,” he told Fox & Friends (pronouncing the “o” as in “Hobbes”): “chapter 41: I see it as a kind of self-portrait.”

What’s the difference between a Wagner concert and a Trump rally? The music is better at a Trump rally.

Being born is overrated. It’s a start, that’s all.

The way of Jesus is the way of detours and digressions, following him in whatever direction he happens to stray.

What’s the difference between Jesus and a Zen master? The guy who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – a Zen master would have whacked him with his keisaku. Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus did too. The parables of Jesus – consider them short narrative keisakus.

I just saw an episode of the cheerlessly hilarious British comedy Fleabag in which Fleabag’s boyfriend Harry says to her, “Don’t make me hate you. Love is painful enough already.” And I thought: that’ll pray.

Does any preacher – or any writer – ever really know whether they are giving their audience pearls or poop? If they do, it’s undoubtedly the latter.  

You can choose your friends but not your family – with the notable exception of your library.

Premodernity: Paranoia
Modernity: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Postmodernity: Narcissism and sociopathy
(From A Dummy’s Guide to Epochal Personality Disorders in Western Civilisation)

“My reaction to the instruction that all the dioceses in the C of E coin 3-word vision statements is identical to a modest proposal: ‘For Christ's Sake!’.” (Letter to the Church Times – needless to say, unpublished)

I have always thought that the fourth little piggy gets a raw deal, and more recently that perhaps s/he is a victim of domestic abuse, or a tragic example of free market scarcity economics. I mean, the third little piggy has roast beef while the fourth little piggy has none? Not on my watch as a grandpa! So as I wiggle her fourth digit and say “… and this little piggy had …”, my munchkin Delilah gleefully exclaims: “a pizza!”  (Obviously not pepperoni.)

The only way to write good non-fiction, particularly academic stuff, is to reads lots of good fiction.

Dogs or cats? Fool! You espouse a zoological version of double predestination. In the new creation, dogs and cats will lie down together. The cat on top of the dog.

I am a universalist-minus-one. That is to say, if hell exists, it has a population of me.

On second thought, I’m inclined to think that everlasting torment also awaits all who edit, publish, or read abridgements of Moby-Dick. (Mercifully, I will be in solitary confinement.)

My big problem with the divine omniscience is that people who think they know everything are such dicks.

Marriage is the great cure of loneliness. And the great cause.

Don’t shoot the messenger – unless, of course, it’s a cold call. Then make sure it’s a head shot.

The best way to make good use of one’s time is to waste it.

On a good day I remind me of myself. At least I think I will.

Old age is like a motorway on which you’re driving along in the slow lane while time flashes by in the fast lane.

When will I stop writing? Possibly when I am dead.

The Big Joke is that when you finally figure out that there’s nothing to figure out, it’s always too late.

The Communion of Saints – aka the Grateful Dead.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Receiving my name


I.
Recently I read a book of magic: Patrick Rothfuss’ novel, The Name of the Wind. Like many tales of arcane entanglement with the forces of darkness, Rothfuss fixates on the idea of naming. Anyone can dabble with the lower forms of sorcery, but the magic so deep and true as to have dissipated into folklore is naming. To know the True Name of a Thing is to have mastery over it. Whisper the name of the wind and you can summon a hurricane. Speak the name of fire and you could extinguish the sun.

II.
Which, of course, reminded me of academia. Academic life consists mostly in listening to questions and replying with The True Name of the Thing: “It sounds like you’re talking about Dyotheletism, no?” Naming can stun the layperson into silence, allowing the academic to have full control over the conversation. Such naming is a Dark Art.

III.
The temptation to power in theological academia lies first in the naming of heresies. “What you are saying sounds a lot like Apollinarianism”. An academic will wield these names willy-nilly to produce fear and shut down discourse, when they ought to whisper these names in the confessional. I think like Nestorius and pray like Arius, which is why I need the creeds.

IV.
The strongest argument against atonement theories is not their precision or anachronism, but their names. Ransom. Satisfaction. Recapitulation. These words are never appropriate as Names of Power, but only as marvels sung out in prayer.

V.
In the animated film, Spirited Away, Sen and Haku both forget their own names, but they remember each other’s. Our identities are only as secure as our memories, which is why we entrust them to one another and to God for safekeeping.

VI.
Intercession is the act of praying names. The names do not pass from our lips to God’s ears, but by an act of union with the divine will they pass from God’s memory to our hearts.

VII.
Sometimes our own names get a little loose, and don’t sit well anymore. So God steps in and adjusts them as he did with Sarah, Abraham, Peter, and Paul.

VIII.
Christians are welcomed into the church through a ritual of names. The child is named, God is named, and we remember our own Christian names. Without baptisms, we might forget them.

IX. 
At baptism our names are wed to God’s, so that when we greet one another in the name of the Lord, we speak our true names.

X.
In the liturgy our names are given to us, hidden under the name of Christ. I become myself in reciting the creed, praying the Lord’s Prayer, hearing absolution, receiving the benediction, holding out my hands for the bread and having the cup lifted to my lips. My name is spoken only in the acts of repentance and forgiveness.

XI.
To be forgiven is to follow Paul, speaking our names only indirectly in our proclaiming Christ's death and resurrection.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

30 Famous Opening Lines in Literature (2017 Editions)

by Kim Fabricius

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  And the waters said, “Gawd, get outta my face with your wind!”
– Moses, Genesis (c. 1445 BC)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind using techniques drawn from Yoga, Pilates, and acrobatics.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD)

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose terrible taste (so bad)
Brought total disaster into the world (out of control),
With loss of Eden, till one tremendous Man
Restore us, and make the world great again.
– John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

It is a truth universally acknowledged in patriarchal, misogynist cultures, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

There was no possibility of going for a run that day.  Disappointingly, the New Balance Vazee Pace v2 trainers I’d ordered from Amazon failed to arrive in the post.
– Charlotte Brontë, Jayne Eyre (1847)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show, depending, of course, on whether or not I am a reliable narrator.
– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

Call me Ishmael.  I self-identify as bicurious.
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

Now, what I want is Alternative Facts…  Alternative Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else.
– Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)

I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.  I am an unpleasant man.  I am an alpha male.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any Merry Christmas cards,” grumbled Jo, bitching on her blog “BenOpticon” about political correctness during the season of Our Lord’s Nativity.
– Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1869)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but both behavioural and cognitive domestic dysfunction therapies are available on the NHS.
– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hours dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon skinny lattes at Starbucks.
– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, the men looking at photos of naked servicewomen on Facebook.
– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

All children, except two, grow up. One of them is an infantile old asshole.
– J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

For a long time, I went to bed early but woke up often to check my smartphone.
– Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913)

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of muesli and skimmed milk from which protruded a teaspoon, another goddam boring breakfast on his low cholesterol/trans-fat diet.
– James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Someone must have been tweeting lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
– Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)

Elmer Gantry was drunk, a homiletical trick for enhancing coherence and lucidity that he had learned at Liberty University.
– Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, until one sunny day he, his wife, and two young children were blasted to death by environmentally friendly fracking.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man while he was asleep  (Lucas, not the white man).
– William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish due to stock depletion caused by global warming.
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

There was a wall. It did not look important. Except to the Mexicans.
– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

Money … in a voice that sounded like plastic.
– William Gaddis, J R (1975)

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me with three tickets for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
– Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers (1980)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the paparazzi followed.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger (1982)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, Fox News.
– William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.  But a casino and a golf course would eventually fix all that.
– Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990)

It was the day my grandmother exploded, one of many civilians in the impoverished Yemeni village of al Ghayil pulverised by a team of gunship-backed US Navy Seals in a “highly successful operation”.
– Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

Death is outside life but it alters it: it leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair at the funeral by wearing bright colours, having friends read tacky poems, and listening to a CD of Robbie Williams singing “Angels”.
– Salley Vickers, Miss Garnet’s Angel (2000)

In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job, and believing the Islamophobic propaganda of the Brexiteers, he cursed the Punjabi with the beard and turban who delivered his mail.
– Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass (2010)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang Doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Another terrorist attack and mass murder, the brutal ending of lives and worlds, the implacably occluded futures of the wounded and grief-stricken – and the inevitable confected aftermath of political fustian, media puffery, and vox-pop cliché.

God is love. Monotonously. Or rather Trinotonously.

God is like an excellent malt whisky. Alas, liberals add ginger ale and ice to it, while evangelicals just read the label.

The church is like a cappuccino: 1/3 creedal espresso, 1/3 milk of human kindness, and 1/3 ceremonial froth.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because if bad things happened only to bad people, we’d be in hell.

One of the best arguments for torture is belief in hell, and one of the best arguments against belief in hell is torture.

“There’s nothing worse than loving someone who’s never going to stop disappointing you,” said Hosea. (Actually, it was a character in a series 7 episode of House I watched last night.)

What was Descartes doing when he wasn’t hunched over that blazing stove cogitating? Probably checking and rechecking and checking again that he had turned it off.

Selfie, ergo sum. Indeed, Selfie, ergo mundus est.

Wow! A new iPhone that can take 3-dimensional selfies – of 1-dimensional selves.

At a recent funeral, a mourner [sic] took a selfie at the graveside as the coffin was lowered. Now if only Joseph of Arimathea had had an iPhone …

Greatest selfie of all time: Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
Runner-up: El Greco, Pentecost.

The binary social media world of Thumbs-up/Thumbs-down – it’s missing a third icon: Turd = Who Gives a Shit?

Did you see the pilot for the brilliant new sitcom set in the Brady Briefing Room?  It’s called That Was the Week That Wasn’t (subtitle: Fake You!), starring Donald Trump and co-starring a cast of discombobulated journalists.

Let’s be clear: Trump does not drive me to despair.  The reality of his presidency suddenly flashing like lightening across a clear blue sky – my reaction is always “WTF!”, not despair.  In fact, I have moments of lucid hopefulness. Trump is a compulsive fantasist, and our fantasies always fuck us in the end.

Stanley Hauerwas has recently written: “I want to suggest that one of the essential tasks of those called to the ministry in our day is to be a teacher. In particular, ministers are called to be a teacher of language.” God’s bollocks! From the fact that Hauerwas feels it is necessary to make such a “suggestion”, one can only conclude that our seminaries have become cemeteries.

To re-endorse Hauerwas: the ministerial vocation is ecclesial speech therapy.

People often say to me after worship, about the sermon, “Thanks. You really gave us something to think about.”  And I think: another Sermon Fail. Imagine someone coming up to Jesus after preaching and saying, “Thanks, Rabbi. You really gave us something to think about” (cf. Luke 4:28-29).

Every year the Times runs a “Preacher of the Year” event. Seriously. Commensurate with the theological vacuity of such a contest, I propose that the winner should be awarded their own celebrity brand of cologne, perfume, or (if High Church) incense.

So The Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth [sic] has apologised after accidentally voting against the Bishops' report on marriage and same-sex relationships, confessing that the mistake had been a “moment of distraction and some confusion” (BBC, 16 February). Rather like the report itself.

Breaking News: The District Attorney of Denver has announced that the three fundamentalist Christians who were arrested for the abduction of the Lutheran minister and human fresco Nadia Bolz-Weber have pleaded guilty to the charge of artnapping.

As a Protestant I don’t have a problem with Mariology, only with mariologiae gloriae. So I guess I’ve got a problem after all.

Why biblical criticism and hermeneutics? To unsettle the text. It is to the bewildered that the Spirit speaks.

Who am I when I do not know who I am? That may seem to be the predicament of the person with Alzheimer’s. It is, in fact, the human condition. Advantage, however, to the person with Alzheimer’s: he does not lie to himself or deceive others about it.

Early Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Late Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the rain gets in.”

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Born Again? (a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent)

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/8a/76/7a/8a767af25432c899f9b0d6326f67deb8.jpg
Raise your hand if you’re a Christian … Now raise your hand if you’re a “born-again” Christian … Just as I thought: a disparity. Which disappoints me hugely, but doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been asking the question to congregations for 35 years and the results are always the same. Instead of being a term with which all Christians can and should identify, “born-again” has become a phrase that some Christians are hesitant to claim for themselves, while others claim it for themselves with a sense of exclusive ownership, both fervently and vehemently, in a weaponised, “Gottcha!” sort of way.

In the US, you get this phenomenon at its worst, because it is associated with evangelical Christians who have an ultra-conservative cultural and political agenda. You’ve heard of the Religious Right, with its idolatrous identification of America as “God’s own country”, its twinning of faith with patriotism, its hardly hidden racist agenda, not to mention its election-winning support for Donald Trump. Fortunately, the UK has been spared this kind of distorted nationalist, nativist faith. Unfortunately, we have not altogether been spared abuse of the term “born-again”.

Above all – yes – the way the term is used by some Christians to make themselves feel more Christian and others feel less Christian. Apparently it is not sufficient to say (as Jesus himself rephrases being “born again”) that you have been “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5), that is, that by baptism and faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, you have been incorporated into the church. No, to be a “real” Christian, you’ve got to have a special conversion experience, usually dramatic, often dateable, and frequently expressed in public “testimonies”, punctuated with proof texts from accredited Bibles. Otherwise you’re suspect.

And then there is this: because the focus is on personal experience, our theology of mission, which includes God’s global work of reconciliation and liberation, becomes truncated. Evangelism is reduced to Christian cloning – inducing the “born-again” experience in other people and directing them to so-called “Bible-believing” churches; salvation is marketed as “fire insurance” (“Turn or Burn”, as the bumper-stickers so invitingly put it), or at least as the spiritual “equivalent to a healthy retirement fund” (Beverly Gaventa); while a commitment to justice and peace, as well to ecumenism, is completely marginalised.

The huge irony is that all this is quite unbiblical, for justice for the poor, peace among the nations, and a passion for the unity of God’s people – these are fundamental, not negligible, let alone expendable, biblical themes. Justice/Peace is the central message of all the great prophets – Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah. And the theme of the ministry of Jesus is – what? The “kingdom of God”, which is a corporate concept and refers to the establishment of shalom, not just in souls but in bodies, not just for individuals but for communities, and not just for some after-death or post-apocalyptic future but for the here-and-now. Or do we need reminding of the manifesto of Jesus, proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (no altar call – the congregation tried to kill him), his “mission statement”:

God’s Spirit is upon me:
God has chosen me to preach good news to the poor;
to announce pardon for prisoners and sight for the blind;
to unchain the enslaved and emancipate the oppressed;
to announce: “This is salvation! Right here! Right now!”

And St. Paul, following Jesus’ great prayer “that they may be one” – again and again the apostle fervently pleads for a common purpose among Christian communities.

That is what mission is about: not about saving my butt and getting sinners, via my church, out of the Pit because “the Bible tells me so”, but about witnessing to the fact that in Jesus Christ God is renewing, reconfiguring the whole universe, inviting people to join in his cosmic programme of reconciliation, and encouraging churches to demonstrate God’s shalom by embodying in their life what Jonathan Sacks calls the “dignity of difference”. Each of our experiences of coming to faith – these are no doubt different. But this vision of the one church and the new creation – that is what binds us to Christ, to each other, to the world.

So to be “born again” – well, let’s look – closely – at the famous text in the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3.

First, observe how Jesus begins by pointing Nicodemus to the “kingdom of God”. Right from the get-go we’re not talking about personal salvation and getting to heaven, we’re talking about the new world that is God’s work in progress.

Second, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without” (John 3:3) – without what, exactly? In the Greek text, “without being born anothen”. Anothen may certainly mean “again”, but it more commonly means “from above”. So the question is: what does anothen mean in this context? Nicodemus obviously takes it to mean “again” – hence his bewilderment at the idea of entering a womb twice. But what if we take anothen to mean not “again” but “from above”? Then what Jesus tells Nicodemus links perfectly with what John tells us in chapter 1, where we read that Jesus, the incarnate Word, gives to all who believe in him the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man but” – of what? – “of the will of God” (John 1:12-13), the God who, in John’s up-and-down heaven-and-earth cosmology is “above”. And then what Jesus tells Nicodemus also links perfectly with what John tells us at the end of chapter 3, where in a single verse (31), he refers to Jesus as “the one who comes from heaven” (v. 31c) and “the one who comes from” – you guessed it! – “anothen” (v. 31a), which clearly means not “again” but “above”. Thus not “born again” but “born from above” turns out to be the better translation of anothen – as, in fact, many Bibles in English now acknowledge.

But look, I’m not the word police! By all means let us speak about being “born again”. Paul never does in his letters, but the First Letter of Peter does (“born anew”). Rebirth is actually a quite fantastic image. It speaks vividly to the point that Jesus is making to Nicodemus, namely that faith is, well – “Wow!” – like a new-born emerging from darkness into daylight, a new world alive with possibility, because (as the mysterious Mr. Smith declares on arriving from London in the small 18th-century town of New York, in the cracking Francis Spufford novel Golden Hill) – because “what I am is all in what I will be”. To speak of being “born again” is not a problem unless you make it a problem by reducing its meaning to a specific experience that all Christians must have. Being “born again” or “from above” – they are both powerful metaphors of transformative faith. But the how of faith is not important.

Only two things are important. Firstly, the that of faith, which finally demonstrates its authenticity not in our personal experiences and “testimonies”, however compelling – we are, after all, notoriously unreliable narrators of our so-called “inner lives”, and Christians have form in being rather egocentric about salvation – but in the outward, public, and often costly practices of grace and actions of love. “Only a person who obeys believes,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ.”

And, secondly, the object and the content of faith around which the that of faith orbits. The object of faith: Jesus, of course, but Jesus “my personal Saviour” only insofar as he is identical to Jesus the strange, disturbing, feral figure that stalks the pages of the New Testament, the one with a fondness for those who aren’t in my gang, otherwise he is simply the Jesus of my personal fantasies. And the content of faith: the quite specific teaching of Jesus – for an overview, that Nazareth Manifesto, and, for more detail, the radical demands of the Sermon on the Mount and those subversive tales-of-the-unexpected we call parables. It’s no good crying “Lord! Lord!” or claiming Jesus “lives in my heart” unless that Jesus and what he teaches actually matches the person and project of the Jesus of the Gospels.

Finally, remember that the new birth is just that – a birth, a beginning; but discipleship – that’s a daily departure from the safety of the neonatal unit and a lifetime of growing up, leaving home, taking risks – like old Abraham and Sarah, whose road trip from Haran to who-knew-where, further and further, is the defining journey of biblical faith.

So the next time someone asks you if you’ve been “born again”, don’t feel intimidated and don’t be shy; rather modestly but boldly say, “Of course – I’m a follower of Jesus! But following Jesus – and keeping up – that’s the arduous journey of a lifetime. Are you too on the way?”

Friday, 10 March 2017

Barth Graduate Student Colloquium

In case you hadn't noticed, the Center for Barth Studies in Princeton has been developing an exciting number of new initiatives over recent years. One of these, The Barth Graduate Student Colloquium is presently calling for applications. The colloquium is open to any doctoral student whose works touches on Barth's theology, and the meeting this year will focus on CD III/3. If you need further enticement to apply, you should note that Willie Jennings is this year's senior scholar and will deliver a paper during the colloquium. So, without any further excuses, follow the link to read more about the colloquium and apply.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

To dust

“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death / Pray for us now and at the hour of our death” - T. S. Eliot

My teeth ache as though I were biting ice-cream. The chill wind blows through my lips and circles around my incisors—it dries my eyes and freezes the condensation on my upper lip. I look down and continue to make my way along the English roadside. I notice the puddles from yesterday’s rain. No longer wet and young, they are frozen with age. Deliberately, I let my foot fall on one and relish the satisfying sound of puncturing the world’s surface. Creation, I realise, is brittle.

Remember that you are dust

I lie still, listening to the clicks and hums as I am slowly drawn up into the tube. The song of moving parts and hidden magnets plays up and down my brain and spine. I rest here in my little mound of dust.

And to dust you will return

I lean forward, keeping as still as I can. The needle goes near the spinal cord. From deep within, she drains my nervous essence into tubes and flasks for examination. Somehow, this blessed cocoon of dust holds together.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

When we first arrived here, I saw the moon cover the face of the sun. It was vision of the end. The skies will darken and the ocean will recede. When the last stars fall we will see that all the lights of heaven were but the embers of a fire disturbed.

We are what you say we are, O Lord. Do not be silent.

On that day we will warm ourselves in the Lamb’s light, as the sun warms the soil. The seeds of faith will germinate, and the tree of life will stand tall amidst our beloved dirt.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Join in the Karl Barth seminar via Facebook

My postgrad seminar on Barth's early theology starts this week. If anyone would like to join in the weekly readings and to be part of the discussion, I've created a Facebook group. Anyone is welcome to join. The first short reading is Barth's early lecture, "The New World of the Bible". The 12 weekly readings are listed here.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

#PresidentPrayer and #PresidentLove

Old Nobodaddy –
who lives in Manhattan, parties in Atlantic City, and holidays in Florida –
let your name be up in lights!
Do what it takes to make America great again [repeat].
Turn it into the New Jerusalem –
replete with casinos, golf courses, and precious stones by Melania;
surrounded by a great wall and, of course, Arabless.
Give me today – make it a Big Mac, Lay’s Potato Chips, and a Diet Coke.
Forgive me … – cancel that: WTF do I have to be sorry about? –
and forget about me forgiving losers!
Don’t bring me to trial – you’d be wasting your time (I’ve got an army of lawyers);
and deliver me from “so-called” judges (goddam enemies of the people).
For mine – sorry, I mean yours – well, ours –
is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for as long as it takes.
We’re done here.

If I speak eloquently and coherently, I’m not speaking like Trump: Trump-speak is a cacophony of bullshit. If I don’t know my ass from my elbow, and if I have the fantasy of draining a huge swamp, and if I have access to state secrets that can be used to destroy the world – that’s Trump. And if I give all my money to the poor, disclose my tax returns, pay the ultimate price for goods and services, and permanently delete my Twitter account – now that would be the Antitrump.

“Trump is patient; Trump is kind; Trump does not want what others have; he is not full-of-himself or high-and-mighty or in-your-face. Trump is not an ego maniac; he never flies off the handle or bears a grudge; he does not gloat when others fail; he relishes only what is actually the case.  Trump is a paragon of virtue” (Kellyanne Conway).

Trump will be as everlasting as a mayfly, as ephemeral as fart.  He will never give up, but he will finally self-destruct.  One day (Inshallah) he will look in a mirror, point his little foredigit at the caricature before him, and shout, “You’re fired!”

“When I was a child, I thought, felt, and acted like a child.  When I grew up, I continued to think, feel, and act like a child – no, make that a big cry-baby.  I’ve got the self-control of a dingo on acid. I don’t see things clearly yet, but one day I never will” (Trump, after being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques).

Meanwhile, there are three things that will sustain us in our overwhelming perplexity and despair: faith, hope, and whatsit. And the greatest of these is Trump.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Do Dum Dum Dum, De Do Dum Dum Doodlings

What an immaculately conceived picture of Queen B as Madonna del Parto in the Instagram icon. I hear that Gabriel has told Beyoncé to name the twin boy after his father: Jay-Zeus.

The Trinity is like pornography: you can’t put it into words but, as Justice Potter Stewart famously declared, “I know it when I see it.”

Praying the other day, I was suddenly interrupted. “Why do you keep calling me ‘Jesus’?” he asked. “Because that’s your name,” I replied. “In Latin,” he said. “For God’s sake, speak English: call me ‘Jack’.”

God gives us the bread of life on the table lest we starve on the scraps from the pulpit.

What is “closure” but the therapeutic ploy of putting putty in the cracks so the light can’t get in?

The profundity of Leonard Cohen’s poetry is that it doesn’t dispel the darkness but illuminates its different shades.

To riff on Hopkins: stars star and planets planet, continents continent and oceans ocean, trees tree and tigers tiger. And humans? Alas, humans inhuman.

Power disempowers; absolute power disempowers absolutely.

I would never have believed it, but it’s actually happening: Trump is uniting the American people in a common cause and achievable project – national self-hatred and suicide.

To paraphrase Erasmus, “In a nation of the blind, the one-eyed man is president.” In this case, he happens to be Cyclops, with the same temperament and appetites.

Just a few weeks into his presidency and Donald Trump is already posing the serious threat of a paradigm shift over Godwin’s Law.

I hear that henceforth all US editions of 1984 will be retitled 2017.

Sunday January 29th: in church. The Gospel is the Beatitudes. No need to preach it today. The text comes alive by simple juxtaposition with the anti-sermon, the anti-Beatitudes, of Trump’s execrable executive actions demonising Muslims.

Sunday January 29th: at home. After seeing the chilling, ugly game of xenophobia that Trump is playing, felt filthy. After watching the thrilling, beautiful tennis match between a Swiss and a Spaniard, felt cleansed.

Forget a coherent opposition, mass demonstrations, or the power of prayer, what we now need is a first-class White House asshole whisperer.

According to the British daily the i, scientists are suggesting that our earliest ancestor was a small creature with thin skin, a large mouth, and no anus, which means that “waste material would simply have been taken out back through the mouth.” Yikes, the missing link is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

“No matter how many body-politic-parts there are, you are still only one body-politic. If the heart-valves were to say, ‘Because we’re not the anus, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. Or if the brain-lobes were to say, ‘Because we’re not the penis, this is not who we are,’ that wouldn’t keep them from being part of the body. If one part of the body acts like an asshole or a prick, all the other parts share in the shite and the piss” (I Americans 11:14ff.)

Of course Trump doesn’t get the fundamental constitutional principle of “checks and balances”. He thinks it’s the discourse of banking, not government. You sign checks and you balance the books – or rather you bounce checks and cook the books.

I’ll tell you what makes me want to knock a thousand heads together: American evangelicals, in sackcloth and ashes, wailing that Thank-you-Jesus-for-President-Trump Christians are the last straw. Earth to American evangelicals: evangelical Americans have been building a haystack of alternative theology (as in “alternative facts”) for my entire adult life, a rick so enormous that by the Reagan presidency astronauts could have seen it from the moon. The trajectory is hardly a quelle-surprise: what began with “The Apostasy of Billy Graham” (the working title of a book on Nixon’s Hananiah that William Stringfellow had planned to write) reaches its nadir in the religious nihilism of Trump’s court toady Franklin.

Would someone please tell Christians who police the boundaries of their communities that faith is supposed to be the trigger of ecclesial fusion, not fission?

Doing theology takes time. Some of the time is for research and writing, of course. Most of the time, however, is for prayer. At least it is if you’re doing it right.

Prosperity Gospel market update on Revelation 1:8a: “‘I am the Alpha but not the Omega; rather I am the 1942 Rolex Chronograph,’ says the Lord God Almighty.”

And Pilate said, “How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?” The cuffed Christ replied, “Er, both.” “Ah,” the procurator smirked, “the old PS defence.”

“Whose side is God on?” we are tempted to ask in all kinds of conflicts, but his answer is always the same: “Not yours.”

Grief cuts us adrift. The tides of time take most people back to shore. Lifeboats may retrieve others. But some continue to drift, drift, drift out to a bleak and pitiless sea.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Karl Barth postgraduate seminar

I promised you an update on what we'll be reading for my Barth seminar this semester. Thanks for all the great suggestions, both here and on Facebook. After much reflection and dialectical hesitation and whatnot, I decided to head off in a slightly different direction, and that is to make Barth's concept of religion a focal point for the seminar. I think this helps to cover a lot of bases. It allows us to read both the Romans commentary and an important section of Church Dogmatics, while keeping strong thematic links across the semester. And it opens up some of the most important areas of Barth's thought (e.g. revelation, election, grace, the task of theology, the critique of protestant liberalism on the one side and Roman Catholicism on the other, etc). In a perfect world we would also have time to read Barth's "doctrine of the lights" from later in the Church Dogmatics. But, ladies and gentlemen, last time I looked out the window it was not a perfect world.

Anyway these are the texts that we'll be reading:
  • "The New World in the Bible" and "The Word of God as the Task of Theology", from The Word of God and Theology, translated by Amy Marga
  • Barth, Epistle to the Romans, translated by E. C. Hoskyns
  • Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, translated by Garrett Green (this is a section of Church Dogmatics that was newly translated and published separately as a funky little paperback)
And here are the twelve weekly readings that we'll be discussing:

1 Revelation: "The New World in the Bible"

2 Dialectical theology: "The Word of God as the Task of Theology"

3 A new approach to scripture: Epistle to the Romans, prefaces (all of them!)

4 The night of sin: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 1

5 God's faithfulness: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 3

6 The new human being: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 5

7 Judgment on religion: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 7

8 Judgment on the church: Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10

9 Revelation and religion: On Religion, chapter 1

10 The sin of religion: On Religion, chapter 2

11 The justification of religion: On Religion, chapter 3a (pp. 111-44)

12 Christ and the Christian religion: On Religion, chapter 3b (pp. 144-66)

Students will be required to write a first paper exploring one particular chapter from the Romans commentary, and a second paper that explores one of the larger themes in these texts.

If anybody from the Sydney area would like to come along and join us, the seminar will be on Tuesday afternoons, commencing early March. Non-fee-paying audit participants are always welcome!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Tales of an eccentric theologian-genius

A friend came to see me today. He was talking about his days as a theological student back in South Africa. I mentioned Karl Barth, and he said he never liked Barth. When I demanded an explanation, he told me he had attended lectures on Barth by a professor of systematic theology named Angus Holland.

Professor Holland, my friend explained, was a little eccentric. He had studied music and medicine. He had a doctorate in mathematics. When he turned to theology he wrote a huge dissertation on Athanasius. When the thing had swollen to nearly 1400 pages, his supervisor commanded him: "Angus, do not write another word or comma. If you need to, just stop in the middle of a sentence."

He was famous on campus for his mathematical genius, his staggering memory, and his lack of social skills. He could recall the weather on any day of his life. If you named any date in history, he could instantly tell you which day of the week it was. Before any lecture he would glance up at the students seated in front of him and announce the percentage of total attendance to three or four decimal places. For example, if 3 of the 17 students were absent from the Barth seminar, he would begin by remarking: “Good morning. I see we have an 82.3529% attendance today.”

Did he recognise any of his students? Did he know their names? They never knew. If you greeted him in the corridor – “Good afternoon, professor!” – he would stop, furrow his brow, look earnestly in your direction, study some fixed point on the wall somewhere above you, then walk off in the opposite direction without saying a word.

The students always suspected him of performing parallel calculations during his lectures. They wanted to prove it. So they went one day to the department of mathematics and asked for an exceedingly complicated equation. A professor of mathematics wrote it out for them. Before class they filled the blackboard with the equation. Professor Holland walked in. He stood a moment and looked at the board. He took the eraser and cleaned the board. He talked uninterrupted for two hours about Greek patristic theology. When the class finished he turned, wrote the answer on the board, and walked out.

He had a curious habit of jangling the coins in his pocket when he prayed. It was distracting. He would be giving a long extemporaneous Presbyterian prayer during the chapel service, and you would see his hand in his pocket and you would hear the jingle of coins. What was he doing down there? Was there a rosary in his pocket? Was he playing with himself? The students asked one of the other lecturers about it. “His loose change,” he said. “He counts it when he prays.”

The professor loved fairy tales. He knew them and loved them with a passion. He would use fairy tales to illustrate his lectures, though you never could quite grasp the connections that he had intuited between the story and the topic at hand. It only added to your bafflement. But it was always a pleasure to hear him speak, with such fierce intellectual joy, about some German fairy tale.

This professor, my friend told me, was the person who taught him Karl Barth. The lectures were intricate, polylingual, unfathomable. It was like trying to read Hegel: you couldn’t take down any notes because the whole thing transpired on a level to which you had no natural access. At the end of a 2-hour lecture on Barth, it might have occurred to you to jot down one word or phrase. But usually not.

In class the professor could quote any passage of the Church Dogmatics from memory. He never had any notes. If a student read out a passage in English, he would correct the translation from memory. None of the students in this particular South African classroom had any knowledge of German. One day, in response to a student’s question, the professor quoted Barth’s German for a full five minutes. They watched the clock ticking on the wall. Five minutes. In German. Then he resumed his lecture without any word of comment or explanation.

My friend spread out his hands, helpless and apologetic, and he said, “When it came to Barth, I never had a chance.”

I begged him for more anecdotes. He gave me one more. He saved the best for last.

One evening the professor was visiting a colleague’s house some miles away. He had intended to walk home. It started to rain heavily and there was no umbrella. His colleague said, “Angus, why don’t you stay here tonight instead of going home in the rain.” He replied, “Thank you, that’s very kind, I will do that.”

His colleague left the room and when he returned there was no sign of the professor. He looked in the kitchen. He searched upstairs. He went from room to room. His house-guest was nowhere to be seen. It was a mystery. The rain poured down. Later that evening, the doorbell rang. There stood Professor Holland, soaked to the skin and dripping wet and holding up his toothbrush. He had gone home to get it.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The gift of weakness: a funeral homily

(Myra was a 79-year-old former primary school teacher, keen golfer, and faithful church member who spent the last 7 years of her life in a nursing home before dying of a dementia-related illness. One of her two sons, John, gave the eulogy. The lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 was then read, and the homily followed.) 

What can I add to John’s tribute to Myra? With a portrait so rich in detail and colour, not much! The focus on family – devotion to Graham, pride in her boys, delight in her grandchildren; the importance of friendships; the vitality – and that smile; the practical faith visible in attention to others and service in the church (at Bethel, on the Social Committee): that’s the Myra we knew in Sketty. But not the only Myra. For the Myra finally overtaken by dementia was Myra too. And God may have something to tell us through Myra in her weakness as well as Myra in her strength. After all, isn’t that the way God worked through Jesus?

Dementia has now replaced cancer as the illness that embodies our deepest fears. Pitiless and inexorable, it seems to threaten our very identity as human beings. Memory evaporates as the past splits from the present like an iceberg cracking from the inside out. Recognition blurs, relationships pale, self-care crumbles.

But how much of this appraisal simply reflects our own visceral fears shaped by a culture captive to the idols of autonomy, productivity, and control? How much of our default evaluation of dementia as a “living death” is simply a projection of unexamined assumptions about selfhood? Are we ever masters of our own experience? Are we not always strangers to ourselves? Isn't all that we have not a secure acquisition but a fragile gift? And isn't who I am finally determined not by what I achieve but by how God sees me?

What if we stop assuming that dementia is solely an affliction that takes us into a bad place and consider the possibility that it might even be a grace that moves us towards a new place? Perhaps the truly awful thing for people with dementia is not so much that they forget – for memory is a collective enterprise, something we do together – but that they are often forgotten.

Certainly Myra was not forgotten by her own family, and if my own experience rings true, amidst her frailty and helplessness, and your loss and pain, there were moments – holy moments – of intimacy, tenderness, humour, and love, a love which the pathos of the situation only served to clarify, deepen, and sustain.

In Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter, the elderly twice-widowed heroine, reflecting on life and loss, observes: “I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be a story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while…. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

The tapestry that is each of us: this side of death I think mostly we see the back side with its loose ends and knots and messiness. But on the other side, the side of resurrection: there the stitches shine like gold, the pattern of our lives – the pattern of Myra’s life – completed, perfected, glorious, woven by the God of creation and recreation we see in Jesus.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Doodlings at dusk

The gospel in 2 words: “Hey, Boo.”

If it’s a clear night on New Year’s Eve, I make a point of gazing at the heavens and counting the stars, to get a tally of my sins at Old Year’s End.

And New Year’s Day? The annual absolution of Sunrise – starlessness – and the single resolution to sin better.

The insidious secular-fundamentalist time-totalitarianism of wall calendar-makers, beginning the week with Monday – a New Year’s pox on you!

Time used to be a friend of mine. No more. He’s become a thief, first nicking bits and pieces of my memory, and now – the bastard – serially robbing me of friends.

My faith in God is sure because it expects nothing from him and always gets it. God is utterly reliable and blesses me with the gracious gift of inconsolability.

“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer; until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger; more and more precise, more and more reverberating” (James Baldwin). So too for every preacher.

What do I make of the prayer Psalm 19:14 when said by many a minister before preaching? Wishful thinking.

“No arts, no letters, no society, continual fear, rich, nasty, brutish, and 6-foot-2.” – Thomas Hobbes on Donald Trump

You’ve got to hand it to The Donald: he’s a master of word-care. Sorry, that’s a typo: I left out the “s”.

The world according to Trump – is it not one vast self-projection? Trump wants only one thing: attention. I therefore propose that the way to make him go away is to live rebelliously etsi Trumpus non daretur.

But one thing in defence of The Donald: he was culpably misquoted about building a wall along the Mexican order. He said mall, not wall.

If I could ask Mr. Trump one self-revealing question, what would it be? That’s an easy one: what have you read in the last 5 years? Not counting Two Corinthians.

A friend of mine said to me, venomously, that he wouldn’t piss on Trump if he was on fire. I told him I’m not surprised: I wouldn’t piss on Trump if I was on fire either. However I would if I wasn’t.

Sign seen at a white evangelical rally: “Thank you, President Trump, for Jesus”.

What is social media, with its wilful and shameless decimation of the private, but a vast technological concentration camp, replete with its rapid descent into brutality?

In the toxic world of social media, name your poison: Facebook for kitsch, Twitter for Krieg.

In an age of multifarious distractions, liturgy teaches us the joy and excitement of monotony.

There are maximum security prisons, and there are maximum insecurity prisons. Many of the latter are churches.

What can we say about many a church-swapper? Amos 5:19a.

Listen to your conscience. It is your PMA (personal moral adviser). Just remember that sometimes it gives you bad advice. Remember too, however, that a bad conscience may be better than a deluded one (Bonhoeffer).

In The End of Protestantism Peter Leithart suggests that “doctrines have mattered and do matter; they have mattered enough for people to kill and die for them.” Hold on: doctrines have mattered little enough for people to kill for them.

Motoring around Europe during the summer of 1969, I spent a few days in Geneva. What struck me most about Calvintown was its spotlessness – the streets were as clean as plates. And that if the city were a painting, it would be a still life. Bad Presbyterianism in a nutshell: anal retentive and nothing happening.

What are we to think of the people who leave strict instructions for their funerals (from music and readings, to dress codes, to embargos on sadness)? Hell, if you’re going to micromanage, micromanage, and write your own goddamn eulogy too.

It is said that God has no grandchildren. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Though I guess he does. Poor old God.

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