Thursday, 7 June 2018

Dicey doodlings

 You think you know someone, but of course you don’t know them too. What might you not know about Jesus of Nazareth?

It is not the gift- and skill-sets – the intelligence and imagination, the range of reading, the elegance and wit – that separate the great theologian from the good one. The difference lies not in the brilliance but the defects. It takes a magnificent flaw to make a great theologian.

Ask me who I am and I will tell you my story. The genre, of course, is fiction.

Am I my own best interpreter? What a dumb and diabolical notion. Only God can truly interpret me, which he will do definitively on Judgement Day – deploying, I am confident, post-kritical theory.

What was the takeaway message for the great and the good after listening to that sermon at the royal wedding? The gospel according to John and Paul: “All you need is love (all together now) / All you need is love (everybody) / All you need is love, love / Love is all you need”. An uncomfortable reminder that what a preacher says and what a congregation hears may be two very different things.

A newspaper headline I quite like: “Kim’s a Seoul Man”.

BBC Breaking News (May 22nd): “Brief [Michael Cohen?] to moon Trump on handling Kim”. Oops, sorry: that should be “Moon to Brief Trump on handling Kim”.

Trump’s annotation of Titus 3:2 in his bedside Bible: “Against everything our country stands for. Most over-rated apostle in history. A total loser. Very sad.”

Might Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why not? Though ISIS will present some stiff competition. North Korea, Iran, Israel/Palestine: better the Orwell Peace Prize.

Information is power. Alas, so too is misinformation.

God and I have an admirable arrangement: I need someone to love me and God wants someone to love. We’re the perfect odd couple.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” “Absolutely,” agreed the first four disciples: “you cannot worship both Cod and Mammon.”

Following the trajectory, expect praise music to trend as liturgical karaoke.

Revenge is a dish best served with either apomorphine or xylazine.

What’s the difference between parental abuse and neglect? The difference, respectively, between knowing and not knowing whether your children are spending most of their free time on-line.

AI may be the future but another AI is already an everyday reality. I mean Artificial Imbecility: you see it in people whose iPhone is a prosthesis.

Everything passes; nothing lasts. But there are some moments – you know those moments, all but forgotten but suddenly adventitiously triggered – that are with you all your life. Unless you stop and take a picture of them with your goddamn iPhone.

Why do I write – doodlings, propositions, sermons, hymns, whatever? Answer: authorial itch. Of course scratching only makes the pruritus worse, and can lead to all kinds of existential and spiritual lesions.

Waiters – even if the service is terrible, always be kind to them. Not because of WWJD, but because you don’t want your entrée heavily seasoned with gob.

That life can unravel so quickly, uncontrollably, and irreparably – that is the tragic. And faith? Faith does not alleviate, on the contrary, it intensifies tragic affliction. Over the abyss, faith hangs by the thread of hope alone.

The Christian is indeed simul iustus et peccator. He is also simul laetus et miser.

I may or may not be a “real Christian”, but a Christian who tells me I’m not is definitely not.

Who, in Adam, is more likely to understand me better than anyone else? My mother or father, sister or brother, spouse, partner, friend – or perhaps my enemy? No, someone who does not know me: a great novelist.

The best that I can say about me is that I am a placeholder for what I will become.

What is the basis of both Christian ethics and vocation? “What can I do for you?” (Bob Dylan).

Monday, 9 April 2018

Delphic doodlings


Breaking News: “Hell abolishes pope” (source: John Piper).

Their Lord was a loser, his ministry a failure, his death a shambles, so just what did Christians expect when pastors became celebrities?

Peter’s advice to Christians who would boast about their faith: “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

If it could be demonstrated that God does not exist, I would, of course, become an atheist. And if it could be demonstrated that God does exist, I would, of course, become an atheist.

“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” But hey, why not do both?

There is nothing so uninteresting as certainty. Hence our puzzling preoccupation with the most certain thing of all, and therefore the ultimate in boring: death.

The problem with many sermons is that they continue after they conclude.

Good “spiritual directors” aren’t. They are spiritual indirectors.

(After Augustine) If you understand prayer, it’s not prayer you understand. Also: you will never pray if you try, you will only pray if you pray, but you will never know whether or not you have prayed.

So studies show that prayer is good for you. It makes you healthier, happier, more stable. Well, if it’s so beneficial, the hell with it!

Thank God for sorrow. Without sorrow, we would all be such insufferable pricks.

The NRA has more congregants than Episcopalians and not many less than Lutherans and Methodists. Well, Jesus did say, “On LaPierre I will build my church.”

According to a recent poll, the historical event of which the British are proudest is the creation of the NHS (1948), with standing alone against the Nazis (1940) coming a distant second (68%-49%). Imagine that, my fellow Americans. No, I didn’t think you could.

A good teacher is not someone who can give a good answer but someone who can detect a bad question.

Ironic at least, tragic at worst, our neighbour is more likely to be our enemy than the stranger we so fear.

It’s not rocket psychology: we are afraid of strangers because we are afraid of ourselves, my inner others who are split, repressed, denied, or, less pathologically, simply fugitive, obscure, opaque. Xenophobia is misdirected egophobia.

If you want to catch the essence of humanity, observe the faces of the sleeping. We look like imbeciles, don’t we? Or, better still, passport photos. Serial killers, right?

While physicists frantically search for a Theory of Everything, Christians blithely explore a Theory of Everyone: it’s called Christology.

Jeez, the way some Christians are responding to life in a post-Christian culture you’d think that Chicken Licken was a prophet and whinging and sulking fruits of the Spirit.

I’m thinking of taking the Benedict Option. Benedict Arnold, that is. Under the current administration treason seems a conscientious calling.

Why can’t I get my head around Trump, why can’t I feel him? Wittgenstein is helpful. He said, “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Well, the same goes for a hyena. Similarly, Thomas Nagel asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” So of a different life-form we might ask, “What is it like to be The Donald?”

Trumpvangelicals – aka Christian Nihilists.

In the Age of Twitter, Warhol’s “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” has become “everyone will be fatuous in 140 characters.”

Back in the day, I moved in a circle of junkies. I still do, but the addiction du jour is now Facebook, a drug equally toxic, harder to kick, and easier to justify.

To update E. M. Forster’s sigh: “poor little key-pad tapping Christianity”.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dinky doodlings

I’ve never had an original thought in my life – including the thought that I’ve never had an original thought in my life.

Do you ever feel that something is missing from your life? If you do, you are.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Well, Gramsci was half right.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Stardust, actually.

Lent launches an assault against disordered desire through fasting and prayer: in fasting you pray with your body, in praying you fast with your mind.

Apart from the Bible, theological reflection is propaganda, and apart from theological reflection, the Bible is propaganda.

In criminal law there is GBH, the equivalent of which in theological polemics is DBH (i.e., David Bentley Hart).

What are Charlie Craig and David Mullins doing in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case? Speaking truth to flour.

As the recent service featuring Andy Savage at Highpoint Church confirms, there is nothing like praise music du jour as an aperitif for the junk food that follows.

I hear that the Vatican is now marketing Donald Trump tee shirts for his fan base. Emblazoned on the front is a picture of the president, encircled by a Latin translation of “Make America Great Again”: Populus Americae Vult Decipi, Ergo Decipiatur.

Imagine Trump with his circle of family and friends worked into a novel by Jane Austen. It would make all his critics’ diatribes look like encomia.

American exceptionalism: some nations may be shitholes, but they are bog-standard shitholes; only the United States is (to re-coin Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) “the indispensable shithole”.

In an interview at Religion Dispatches, Professor Russell Jeung opines that “the white evangelical church is dead.” “Dead”? Worse than dead: undead.

What has caused the demise of the white evangelical church in the US? The classic hubristic military miscalculation of opening a second front: to their perennial asinine atonement wars, they started a series of mephitic culture wars.

Prayer is not just an inherently political activity, it is an act of resistance and protest. To pray “Thy Kingdom come” on a hassock is truly to take-the-knee.

Who are America’s greatest comic writers? “Self-Reliance” alone puts Ralph Emerson right up there.

There is a word for someone who has been argued into faith: sucker. Because (a) he doubtlessly has failed to detect some rather poor apologetic reasoning, and (b) because even if he hasn’t, whatever he has been argued into, it isn’t faith.

“If we have to use a single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ – their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete: neither complicated, diluted, nor unified, by abstraction.” That’s Oliver Sacks (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) describing the world of the “retardate”. Of clinical interest, it is also a perfect fit for Jesus the Идио́т (Idiot) (Dostoevsky).

If you read without a dictionary to hand you insult the author; if you write without a thesaurus at hand you insult yourself. Not to mention you’re a lazy bastard.

Not talking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being silent; in addition you need the act of humility called listening.

The worst thing about retirement is not that you are no longer necessary, it is the realisation that you never were. And the best thing about retirement? The same as the worst.

I look at my grandchildren, 5 and 2, and of course I want them to be happy, but not too happy and not only happy. I pray also for a seasoning of anger and a soupçon of anguish.

Pity the devil: the loveless bastard is scared to death.

Life makes one promise, and keeps it: Death. God also makes one promise, and keeps it: Jesus.

Pitiable is the person who approaches death saying, “I have had enough”, but blessed is the person who approaches death saying, “I want nothing more.”

Monday, 12 February 2018

Teaching idea: heaven, hell, purgatory

Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.

 DANTE
1.     Hell
2.     Purgatory
3.     Paradise (I)
4.     Paradise (II)

SHAKESPEARE
5.     Macbeth – hell
6.     King Lear (I) – purgatory
7.     King Lear (II) – purgatory
8.     The Tempest – paradise

MILTON
9.     Samson Agonistes – purgatory
10.  Paradise Lost (I) – hell
11.  Paradise Lost (II) – paradise
12.  Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory

Some other random observations about the three authors:
  • The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).  
  • The relation between visible and invisible realities. This is made doubly interesting in Milton, who draws attention to his own blindness even as he explores the boundary between the visible and the invisible.
  • The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
  • For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing words with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) evokes spiritual reality through a literalistic depiction of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air." 
  • Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.

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!

Archive

Subscribe by email

Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.

TOPO