Saturday, 30 December 2017

Dingo doodlings

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify Gold and enjoy it whatever.” (Westchester Shorter Catechism)

So the Pope nods off while praying? No, the Pope prays while nodding off.

Title for a sermon on Galatians 3:27: “The Man Who Took His Christ for a Hat”.

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Poor Monsieur Pascal: he had a tin ear for star song and galactic symphonies.

Before I ask a minister whom I don’t know what theologians he reads, I ask him what novels he has read. If he reads novels, I go on to poetry. If he doesn’t read novels, I lose interest in the conversation. Then, for my nightly devotions, I pray for those who listen to his sermons and experience his pastoral care.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the English butler, speaks of “that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is the essence of good waiting.” Ergo good praying too.

A famous paradigm of the pastor is the “wounded healer”. Shouldn’t that be “healing wounder”? Only truth and love can heal, but both begin with the recoil of hurt and pain.

My dear pastor, ask not how many people you have fixed, rather pray that the number you have broken is few.

The progressive will eventually become an embarrassment, but the reactionary will always be an asshole.

Great bumper sticker: “America First? Matthew 20:16!”

“Patriotic” Americans will make any sacrifice except sacrifice itself.

I feel for those for whom “thoughts and prayers” has become either a mindless mantra or a euphemism for “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”. But don’t despair. Turn to the Psalms. There you will find the integrity of lament, outrage, and imprecation, the perfect obsecrations for the NRA and its lackey politicians.

Good news for American misogynists: it’s now legal to carry a concealed weapon across state lines – in addition, that is, to the one they’re born with.

The problem with all moral arguments for torture is that they are utilitarian. If they were deontological I would have more respect for them. As O’Brien frankly states in 1984, “The object of torture is torture.”

Ah, if only the roads of social and cultural nostalgia led to Eden. They don’t. They converge on a new Nuremburg.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. What was cool yesterday is uncool today, and what is uncool today will be cool tomorrow. Likes, Followers, Trending – puffs of smoke! But suggest that I close my Twitter and Facebook accounts – go chase the wind!

Both the fulsome panegyrics for and fulminating diatribes against the Reformation commit the same just-so story fallacy, treating it as the inception rather than the invention of modernity.

When a snake sheds its skin it does not become a post-snake. So too modernity does not become post-modernity when it modernises, it is simply shedding its skin. Modernity is modernising. In its deep grammar, “modernity” is a gerundive.

On November 8th, 2016, they thought they were walking into a voting booth when actually they were marching to the guillotine. The election of Trump has been the decapitation of White American Evangelicalism, with all the squawking, frenzy, and gore you’d expect from a headless fowl.

With a lifetime of trying, I have never found the truth. Occasionally, however, it has bumped into me – and once He ran me over.

God bumps into us when we’re least expecting it, so why on earth should people go to church anticipating an encounter with God? I always go to church with no expectations whatsoever, and I am usually not disappointed. But then ubi et quando Deo visum est – thunder from a clear blue sky.

Psychology (it seems to me) is a sort of meteorology of the self. Epiphanies or traumas – they’re climate change.

If you think it’s hard to be yourself, try not being yourself.

The older I get, the more I am interested in antiquities. Why is that?

I can just about cope with the aches and indignities of aging. It’s the well-meaning concern of others for them that I can’t handle.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Most interesting books I read in 2017

I don’t want to pick the best books of the year. My reading lately has been too eclectic for anything like that. These days I rely mostly on audiobooks. So my reading gravitates towards whatever happens to be available on audible.com, or whatever is performed by a good narrator. (I have developed a zero tolerance policy for poor narration: I will return an audiobook for refund within five minutes if the narrator does not please me.)

From time to time I still take up a physical book and read it with my eyes. After so many audiobooks I am intrigued to re-discover the quite distinctive pleasures of silent reading. Recently I read nearly all of Stefan Zweig’s short stories and novellas in the old way, silently turning the pages as I enfolded my spirit within that special canopy of solitude. But most of the books listed here I read sociably, with my ears, in the consoling and challenging presence of a human voice. I like it so much. Am I the only one? Or is the burgeoning audiobook industry reviving an ancient culture of sociable reading? Will some future memoirist note with astonishment the sight of someone reading alone in silence, as Augustine did when he saw Ambrose reading in Milan? "His eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest" (Confessions 6.3.3).

Anyway, these are the books that I found most interesting and most rewarding in the past year. In case you are looking for something to read – and who is not looking, at all times and in all circumstances, for something to read? – I have added a note to each one to help you decide if that book suits your particular ailment. And, after much soul-searching, I have also nominated my Most Interesting Book of the Year.


THEOLOGY & ETHICS

The Annotated Luther, volume 1: The Roots of Reform (2015). Read this if you think protestants were to blame for the reformation. 

Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). Read this if you think capitalism is evil and the pre-capitalist world was a haven of virtue.

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (2015). Read this if you think social trinitarianism is the greatest thing since trinitarianism.

Mark Chapman, Theology at War and Peace: English Theology and Germany in the First World War (2017). Read this if you’re interested in Troeltsch, or if you think only the Germans were rabid nationalists.

Joseph Ratzinger, Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2007). Read this if you’ve ever wondered where reason went.

H. Richard Niebuhr, “Theology—Not Queen But Servant,” an essay on theology and the university in The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (2015). Read this if you think theology ever was, or ever ought to be, the queen of the sciences.

Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (2010). Read this if, like me, you used to believe Reinhold Niebuhr when he said he was departing sharply from the Social Gospel tradition.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (2015). Read this.

Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (2017). Read this if you don’t believe in the soul, or if you would like to believe in the soul but don’t know how.

Sam Harris, Lying (2011). Read this if you have ever told a lie.

Dallas G. Denery II, The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment (2015). Read this if the previous book makes you want to learn more about the history of lying. The patristic stuff in the first chapter is weak but it's really interesting once he gets to medieval theology and its relation to the all-encompassing falsehoods of courtly life.


HISTORY

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942). Read this if you think morality has declined shockingly in the past century. His account of prostitution in the nineteenth century is quite harrowing and should make you cry tears of joy over every unwed sexual partnership.

Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53). Read this if you want a gripping tale in which the righteous prevail against a vastly superior foe. Churchill received the Nobel Prize in Literature for this book, and you can see why as soon as you start the first page. The audiobook read by Christian Rodska (in four volumes) is wonderful.

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). Read this if 45 hours listening to Churchill was just not enough.

Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (2017). Read this if you think open borders are Good and controlled borders are Bad. Whether or not you share the author’s pessimism, it’s an interesting account of the way recent European (especially German) history has been shaped by the “tyranny of guilt” over past wrongs.

Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014). Read this if you’d like to see how different civilisations understand their global mission, and how the internet might be changing all this.


POETRY

Denise Levertov, Oblique Prayers (1986). If I have to tell you why you should read this, then you’re probably the kind of person who won’t read it anyway.

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (1992). Read this if you want something easier than Denise Levertov.


FICTION

Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord (2015). Read this if you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to be just like King David when I grow up.

Stefan Zweig, Collected Novellas (2016) and Collected Stories (2013). Read this if you like to finish a story in one sitting. The novellas are especially good: for a taster try his Chess Story or Confusion or Letter from an Unknown Woman.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909). Read this if you want to laugh your arse off as you follow the swashbuckling adventures of an atheist and a Catholic who set out to destroy one another and become (spoiler alert) BFFs. Everyone talks about Father Brown and The Man Who Was Thursday, but this one is my favourite Chesterton story. And the audio reading by Gildart Jackson is as entertaining as you could wish for.


OTHER COOL STUFF THAT DOESN’T FIT IN THE OTHER CATEGORIES

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). Read this if you’ve ever expressed moral outrage at something somebody said on social media.

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (2016). Read this because he’s the Boss. It’s better on audio because he reads the book himself: and the man has a nice voice, I’m not the first person to think so.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (1971). Read this if you like movies and have ever tried to think about them.


And finally ... drum roll ... the Most Interesting Book of the Year award goes to:

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). This is hands down the most interesting thing I read this year. I’ve been reading Freud for years but for some reason had never got around to this one even though it’s his magnum opus. Maybe I was put off by the rumour (a scandalous falsehood, as it turns out) that Freud merely finds sex in every dream. Anyway whatever you think of Freud’s theory, this is a marvellous feat of scrupulous observation, breath-taking intellectual adventurousness, and disarming candour. Most of the dreams analysed are Freud’s own, and he investigates his hidden desires with an amazing lack of defensiveness. Well done, Sigmund Freud, and congratulations on writing such an interesting and original book.

Well that’s all from me. Adieu, 2017! Adieu, Sydney!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Massacre of the Innocents: Christmas letter from Kim Fabricius

Kim sent out this Christmas letter and I asked if we could post it here:

Christmas is, for me, a haunted house. The tree is enchanting, the ritual of gift-exchange delightful, the food cornucopian, the egg nog ambrosial – but the ghost of Herod is always crashing the party, the memory of the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16) ever souring my sweet dreams of peace. There is nothing so dead in all the world as murdered children.

The theologically feral novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago ensures that the spectre and the recollection persist. In a psychologically probing retelling of the Nativity narrative, Joseph overhears a conversation between two soldiers that alerts him to Herod’s diabolical plans and propels him to rescue his wife and child. In the aftermath, however, Joseph is plagued by the thought that he could have and should have warned other parents of the impending slaughter, and for the rest of his short life the father of Jesus will have nightmares that he is leading soldiers to kill his son.

This year’s Christmas painting then: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Massacre of the Innocents.

Multiply narrated and theatrically staged – replete with marauding soldiers, protective fathers, distraught mothers, and solicitous villagers (and terrific touches like the soldier in the left background, opposite the cohort, pissing against a house) – the painting is particularly contemporary for being, in fact, a bowdlerisation. For scientific examination demonstrates that the original was much more explicit and detailed in its portrayal of the atrocity, re-contextualised by Bruegel as a 16th-century Flemish war crime executed by Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries. All too close to the bone for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered his royal artisans to give such “fake news” a paint-over, airbrushing and altering the mass infanticide into a scene of more quotidian pillage.

Plus ça change, right? But hush, children, what’s that sound? Do you hear it? The Shaker of Nations confounding the nabobs of nihilism in Mary’s feisty protest song:

He bared his arm and showed his strength,
     scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
     pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
     The callous rich were left out in the cold.
(Luke 1:51-53, The Message)

A Christmas toast, then, to the exorcism of Herod’s ghost, and – it’s the 5th anniversary of the Massacre at Sandy Hook – a New Year hope for the end of Moloch worship and the downfall of his high priests Smith & Wesson.

As for Joseph’s guilt, however – let alone for Rachel’s grief (Matthew 2:17-18) – no false consolation. Rather collective remorse and mourning, and the perennial prayer of the desperate soul: “Lord, have mercy! Come, Lord Jesus, come!”

God bless you in the Child.

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