Saturday 31 May 2008

Two small books: Dr Barth and Dr Seuss

Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss (WJKP, 2008), 95 pp.; Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (WJKP, 2008), 63 pp. (review copies courtesy of WJKP)

Here’s a couple of nice little books (Thing One and Thing Two), both just released from WJKP. In our first book, Robert Short offers an entertaining reading of Dr Seuss’s stories as Christian “parables.” I adore Dr Seuss – I’m always begging my kids to let me read more Dr Seuss, instead of those bland and banal Disney books that clutter their shelves. So I enjoyed this book’s playful engagement with Dr Seuss’s stories.

Admittedly, Robert Short’s analysis is not a very nuanced one; and it’s a shame he neglects both Dr Seuss’s sharp political edge and his extraordinary aesthetics (first and foremost, these books are great because they’re works of true poetry).

Ultimately, Dr Seuss’s writing can’t be turned into neat theological “parables” (although many of them are certainly political parables). So I can’t help cringing a little when Short tells me that Christ = the Cat, or that Christ’s body and blood = green eggs and ham, or indeed that Sam-I-am represents the name of God! (I’ll let you in on a secret: he’s called “Sam-I-am” because it rhymes with “eggs-and-ham”…) But all this can be taken in good fun, and Short is clearly enjoying himself with bucketloads of playful exaggeration.

In any case, there are some nice insights along the way – for example, in the chapter on I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, Short remarks: “The difference is that Christian faith has an infinitely greater appreciation of trouble than the world does” (p. 51). An excellent point!

And Short is right to observe that Dr Seuss’s stories possess a “profundity-in-simplicity” which allows them to make a real impact. These stories, he remarks, are deceptive in their simplicity. “Charming, childlike little tales suddenly become meaningful…. They sneak up on us. They become Trojan horses or sugar-coated medicine. They are the wise Cat in the otherwise empty hat” (p. 66).

On a somewhat more serious note, our second book brings together fifty of Karl Barth’s prayers, written for before and after his sermons. In the foreword (these prayers were originally published in German in 1962), Barth explains his growing discomfort with the traditional liturgical prayers, since they remained too disconnected from the language and content of his sermons. “For a while,” he says, “I sought help by replacing the petitions of the order of liturgy not with extemporaneous prayers (I have never dared to risk such a thing), but with freely bringing together biblical passages from the Psalms.” Only in his later years did he begin to write his own prayers as part of his sermon preparation. The resulting prayers are stirring, colloquial, often profound, and always blissfully concise – as Barth remarks in the foreword, “the spice for all parts of all spiritual and theological sayings should consist in brevity!”

Barth decided to publish these prayers in the hope that they would be used both in assembled worship and privately. The book thus arranges the fifty prayers according to the liturgical year, with some additional thematic sections (e.g. prayers for funerals). The prayers will certainly be of interest to researchers and students of Barth – but if we are to use the book as it was intended, our proper response should be to pray these prayers, to call upon God in weakness and humility and gratitude and joy. Here are a few short excerpts:

“Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of convictions and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers. You know where we come from…. But now we all stand before you…” (p. 1).

“Lord our God, you wanted to live not only in heaven, but also with us, here on earth; not only to be high and great, but also to be small and lowly, as we are; not only to rule, but also to serve us; not only to be God in eternity, but also be born as a person, to live, and to die” (p. 11).

“None of us is a great Christian; rather, we are all very small Christians. But your grace is sufficient for us. Awaken us to the small joy and thankfulness that we are capable of, the timid faith that we bring, the incomplete obedience that we cannot refuse – to the hope in the greatness, wholeness, and completeness that you have prepared for us in the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that you have promised us in his resurrection from the dead” (pp. 29-30).

GIVEAWAY: Anyway, I’ve got a copy of The Parables of Dr Seuss to give away. So if you’d like a copy, just name one thing that Barth and Dr Seuss have in common. The most interesting or imaginative comment wins the book.

Friday 30 May 2008

Milbank and red Toryism: or, why it's right to be left

One of the fascinating features of the contemporary intellectual landscape is the appearance of surprising convergences between the political left and right. You can see it, for instance, in the retrieval of Carl Schmitt by contemporary leftist theorists; or you can see it in a conference like this one, where theologians and radical Marxist philosophers rally together around the Pope’s infamous Regensburg address.

In his delightful book on Paul, Jacob Taubes offers a humorous comment on this tendency in political theory. Referring to the fascist theorist Armin Mohler, he remarks (p. 99): “He was, so to speak, the right-wing extremist and I was the left extremist. Les extrèmes se touchent – in any event, we shared the same views about the middle.”

In the latest instance of “sharing the same views about the middle,” Dave Belcher refers us to John Milbank’s short piece in The Guardian. Milbank gets straight to the point, and calls for a “red Toryism”: “In the face of the secret alliance of cultural with economic liberalism, we need now to invent a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues: a ‘traditionalist socialism’ or a ‘red Toryism’. After all, what counts as radical is not the new, but the good.”

Dave has some further reflections on how this new statement fits into the trajectory of Milbank’s thought; and Phillip Blond also discusses red Toryism in today’s Guardian.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Faux theological libraries

Over at the IVP blog, Dan has an exciting new proposal: faux theological libraries. “I am recommending that IVP Academic begin offering our customers a full array of faux books to adorn their dens, studies or office walls. Consider it intellectual wallpaper.” This is great news for theologians everywhere. A faux edition of the Patrologia Latina (or of the new 31-volume edition of Barth’s Dogmatics) can make you feel just as proud, but without all the associated fuss of reading.

Come to think of it, some theological books might actually be better as faux editions…

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Karl Barth on sickness, health, and doctors

My poor father (who also happens to be F&T’s most devoted reader) has lately had more than his fair share of doctors, hospitals and waiting rooms. In his ethical section on “Freedom for Life” (CD III/4, §55), Karl Barth discusses God’s own opposition to sickness – so that doctors and patients are together following God’s will as they resist the demonic power of sickness:

“Sickness, like death itself, is unnatural and disorderly. It is an element in the rebellion of chaos against God’s creation. It is an act and declaration of the devil and demons. To be sure, it is no less bound to God and dependent on Him than the creature which He created. Indeed, it is impotent in a double way. For like sin and death, it is neither good nor is it willed and created by God at all, but is real, effective, powerful and menacing only in its nullity, as part of that which God has negated, as part of His kingdom on the left hand.…

“The realm of death which afflicts man in the form of sickness … is opposed to His good will as Creator and has existence and power only under His mighty No. To capitulate before it, to allow it to take its course, can never be obedience but only disobedience towards God. In harmony with the will of God, what humans ought to will in face of this whole realm on the left hand, and therefore in face of sickness, can only be final resistance.… Those who take up this struggle obediently are already healthy in the fact that they do so, and theirs is no empty desire when they will to maintain or regain their health” (pp. 366-69).

Furthermore: “When one person is ill, the whole of society is really ill in all its members. In the battle against sickness the final human word cannot be isolation but only fellowship” (p. 363).

Tuesday 27 May 2008

A dialogue with George Herbert

Here’s one of my favourite George Herbert poems: “Dialogue”, from his collection The Temple (1633). If you’re having trouble following, it’s a dialogue between George Herbert and God (God’s speech is in italics). Herbert is arguing with God; he is in despair, since he feels completely undeserving of salvation, and he can’t imagine his own life having any worth to God. God replies twice, and then Herbert interrupts God’s speech in the final line.

Sweetest Saviour, if my soul
        Were but worth the having,
Quickly should I then control
        Any thought of waiving.
But when all my care and pains
Cannot give the name of gains
To thy wretch so full of stains,
What delight or hope remains?

What, child, is the balance thine,
        Thine the poise and measure?
If I say, “Thou shalt be mine,”
        Finger not my treasure.
What the gains in having thee
Do amount to, only he
Who for man was sold can see;
That transferr’d th’ accounts to me.

But as I can see no merit
        Leading to this favour,
So the way to fit me for it
        Is beyond my savour.
As the reason, then, is thine,
So the way is none of mine;
I disclaim the whole design;
Sin disclaims and I resign.

That is all, if that I could
        Get without repining;
And my clay, my creature, would
        Follow my resigning;
That as I did freely part
With my glory and desert,
Left all joys to feel all smart—

        Ah! no more: thou break’st my heart.

Saturday 24 May 2008

Transformation theology: Oliver Davies responds

A guest-post by Oliver Davies (responding to our recent discussion of his new co-authored book on Transformation Theology)

Hi everyone. Well, firstly I would really like to thank you all for picking up these themes. We really appreciate it. The first thing I have to say is how difficult it really is to communicate something new in the theological realm! We all carry around sets of idea in our heads and are open to some kind of refinement or amendment to those, but when something comes along which calls the whole lot into question, we struggle to make sense of it. The missing bit may only be very small but it can also be quite fundamental. From the point of view of those trying to communicate the problem and its answer (if that is not too reductionist a way of viewing it) our difficulty is that, since what we are working with is fundamental, we often don’t know ourselves where it is leading us. Only gradually do you get to see an overall picture. If the problem is fundamental, then it will touch everything, though it may do so in ways which simply confirm the status quo, tweak it in a new direction or radically challenge it.

The further problem with presenting this stuff is that you can go in from so many different angles – I have recently “gone in” through ascension and scriptural hermeneutics (see my recent paper, available in Italian at the Gregorian University website). So, since we are claiming that Transformation Theology is about something fundamental which has dropped out of view, let me tell you what I think it is.

Firstly, there is a small but massively influential Christological deficit. We don’t know “where the body of Jesus is”. We accordingly read the ascension as marking the absence of Christ, whereas it properly marks his presence in a new and more powerful way. Spirit and Church come to take the place of the body (as Jenson and others suggest), which just confuses a traditional Trinitarian structure of mediation (common ousia) with an innovative structure of substitution. We’ve lost the body but, hey, we still have the Spirit and the Church, so that’s okay!

There are two big problems with this. We lost the doctrinal affirmation that Christ continues to exist bodily (the “local” existence of scripture and tradition) in a mode which is fully human and fully divine – and we lost this on the grounds of changes in cosmology which were only ever expressive of the doctrine and never defining of it. Did we really want to do that? We keep the consequences of the ascension (i.e. Spirit of Pentecost and Church, universal presence of Christ) but can’t relate to the ascension itself (since it is expressed in terms of an alien cosmology).

That doesn’t seem right to me, since it shifts the axis of incarnation away from real time and space (where the living, wounded and ascended body of Christ must in some real sense be, if Christ is still fully human and fully divine) to ourselves as observers, meaning-makers, beautiful theoreticians, etc. If we have lost the reality of the continuing incarnation (contra Mt 28:20) since we lost a particular view of heaven as the place to “put” the body, then, never mind, we still have ourselves! And the human mind is a wonderful thing. If we no longer look to discover incarnational revelation in our space and time, in the actuality of our embodied lives, then we can nevertheless think it there: by the power of the creative intellect. And we have the sacraments too of course. To point to the sacraments is to point to Christ (never mind if sacramental theology was predicated in its origins on the real existence of Christ in heaven, without which we get substitution again and not the mediation which is the bedrock of classical sacramental theory). The affirmation that Christ still lives and is still embodied needs the corresponding affirmation that he is still in real relation to our space and time on his own account and not by virtue of substitution, which would imply that he has simply “gone off the radar”.

Secondly, all of this combines with the amazing work that Paul Janz has done on practical and speculative reason, and on ethics and revelation. I learned a fantastic amount from Paul, who came at the same questions from an entirely different angle. Paul has shown (largely in his forthcoming book) how thinking came to do the work of acting in Western tradition. Revelation is fundamentally about a new way of acting in the world (it is not those who “say Lord, Lord, but who do the will of the Father...”), under obedience to divine command. All that is to do with practical rather than speculative intellect; and yet, we have lost sensitivity to these distinctions. We constantly treat Christianity as though it were a philosophy or a work of literature (I am not against philosophy or literature) rather than a disclosure to practical intellect which calls us into the radical freedom of action in and for Christ in the world (i.e. the ascended, wounded and glorified Christ). Faith is faith in Christ who acts rather than thinks.

There are two fundamental problems that we are addressing therefore. The first is the Christological deficit which goes back four or five hundred years. The second is the shift in anthropology which is chiefly datable to the period immediately following the publication of Kant’s First Critique. Both changes, which were of enormous importance to Christianity, probably go back to radical developments in our understanding of what matter is, and thus of the relation between mind and matter, which is thematised both as a topic to be discussed and as a practice of thinking and living in the world. The latter is perhaps its more fundamental form.

We are not saying, however, that there is something radically wrong with Christian life today or the life of the Churches, but that the problems lie in the area of academic theology, as conceptual support for the life of faith. The faithful Christian always relates to a living Christ who lays claim to us in the fullness of our embodied actuality and in the particularity of our lives (I think this is what we mean by vocation). But theology more often than not just addresses the mind, through intellect and imagination, rather than taking its life and orientation from the world, which is both real in itself and taken up into Christ, where Christian intellect and imagination must find their home. Instead of allowing ourselves to be opened up to the revelation of Christ in the world, communicated through command at work through the senses and the particularity of space and time events (“the command of grace”, in Janz’s phrase), we focus on the mind as the place of insight, generativity and meaning. But if these things are to be properly Christian, they must also be real, which means they must be responses to the continuing incarnation or presence of Christ in the world – known not through the substitutions of Spirit, Church and sacrament, but through their mediations.

And here the third problem arises which follows from the first two: we have lost an understanding of the way we can and should access and be attentive to the presence of Christ in this way. We constantly bypass with mind the very place in which he is present for us in the here and now, which is to do with the senses and with command, since this is a place where the mind does not necessarily want to go. The Damascus Road appearance or revelation is paradigmatic for us here.

I could go on but I hope this helps! Paul and I both have books almost ready to go which develop these themes much more fully than we were able to do in the book Transformation Theology. All three of us are working on a new book, presenting this as a new Catholic Theology for Europe (which may appear first in European languages, though it should also come out in English). We continue to think and talk with people about a reformed version of TT. We have research projects gathering momentum in cosmology, law, scriptural exegesis, political theology, Pauline theology and aesthetics. We are also thinking about holding a forum at King’s where we can really enter into a good conversation with others, since once people “get it”, it quickly becomes a collaborative venture.

“Getting it” entails seeing that incarnational revelation still comes to us through the senses (“Jesus still lives, and his Lordship in the particularity of our lives is the mode for us of that life”), and that the senses cannot be absorbed without remainder into mind. Thus ascension allows that our faith in Christ can be far closer to that of the apostles than we might ordinarily admit, not on our own account, but on account of the nature of the transformation effected in Christ. Doctrinally (theologically) and anthropologically (philosophically) we have lost the tools and practices which help us to “recognise” him in his transformed state in the everyday reality of our lives where he comes to meet us.

Thursday 22 May 2008

Augustine blog conference

In August, Cynthia will be hosting a blog conference entitled Conversations with Augustine, Past and Present. Posts will explore Augustine’s enduring influence on various theologians and philosophers from the Middle Ages to the present – so Cynthia is looking for posts on thinkers like Scotus, Luther, Heidegger, Barth, de Lubac, Marion and Lacan. If you’d like to participate, just head on over to Per Caritatem.

How to be confessional

Steve Holmes discusses the Peter Enns affair, and asks what it means to be confessional. “Glancing through the published material, my overwhelming sense is that the real problem is that WTS was not confessional enough, or at least not secure enough in its own confessional status.”

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Bruce McCormack on Peter Enns and Westminster

The redoubtable Bruce McCormack has weighed in on the Peter Enns debacle, with an excellent guest-post over at Arthur Boulet’s blog. McCormack argues that the Westminster report against Enns does not reflect a Reformed christology, but instead a Lutheran or even Eastern Orthodox christology.

In passing, he also makes a very interesting observation about contemporary Protestant theology: “I live in an ecclesial world in which those who value Christian orthodoxy as a concept seem invariably to drift towards either Rome or Constantinople or some amalgamation of the two which is represented by no existing church. The last thing most of my friends want is a truly Protestant theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed)…”

Contemporary worship songs

“Worship tunes tend to evince an adolescent theology, one that just can’t get over how darn cool it is that Jesus sacrificed himself for the world.”

—Andrew Beaujon, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock (De Capo Press, 2006), p. 159; cited in Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready, p. 158.

The divisiveness of universalism: or, how to be intolerant of tolerance

“The way to counteract this re-emerging ultra-politics [of different fundamentalisms] is not more tolerance, more compassion and more multicultural understanding, but the return of the political proper, that is, the reassertion of the dimension of antagonism which, far from denying universality, is cosubstantial with it. That is the key component of the proper leftist stance as opposed to the rightist assertion of one’s particular identity: the equation of Universalism with the militant, divisive position of one engaged in a struggle – true universalists are not those who preach global tolerance of differences and all-encompassing unity, but those who engage in a passionate struggle for the assertion of the Truth which compels them….

“When De Gaulle, for instance, almost alone in England in 1940, launched his call for resistance to the German occupation, he was at the same time presuming to speak on behalf of the universality of France, and, for that very reason, introducing a radical split, a fissure between those who followed him and those who preferred the collaborationist ‘Egyptian fleshpots’…. The crucial point here is that subjectivity and universalism are not only not exclusive, but two sides of the same coin…. In Hegelese, the existence of the true Universal … is that of an endless and incessantly divisive struggle.”

—Slavoj Žižek, “Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics,” in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, ed. Chantal Mouffe (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 35-36.

Monday 19 May 2008

Envision 08

In June, one of the biggest evangelical conferences in American history will be held in Princeton: Envision 08: The Gospel, Politics and the Future. The conference aims to unite evangelicals and mainstream Christians in a conversation about how the gospel and politics interrelate in the current American context. The conference will feature around 60 speakers, including Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Kay Warren, Miroslav Volf, Jay Bakker, Bart Campolo, Rich Cizik, John Perkins, and Jim Wallis. (H/T David and Chris.)

A Sopranos conference

Aaron directs us to a four-day conference on The Sopranos at Fordham University: “The Sopranos: A Wake.” There’s a full programme at Paul Levinson’s blog. Sounds like a lot of fun. What I’d really like to see is a conference on Deadwood in which the speakers have to present their papers using the colourful language of that show. Oh, the academic debates you could have with language like that! Oh the things you could say when someone asks you a hard question after your paper!

Sunday 18 May 2008

Robert Jenson's large catechism

A while back, I told you about my happy discovery of a little-known work by Robert W. Jenson: his Large Catechism (1991). It has been impossible to get a copy of this, since it was produced on an extremely small print run. But a reader of F&T has just informed me that it has now been reprinted. The new printing includes an introduction by Gregory P. Fryer – and it’s available direct from the publishers for just 4 dollars. I’ll be ordering a copy or two right away!

You can see my earlier post for some excerpts from the booklet – including this one, which sums up Jenson’s whole theological vision:

“In our fallen religion, we think salvation would be escape from temporal existence, from the threats and opportunities of an open future…. But the true God is the one coming as the future rushes upon us; he is life rather than release from life. His very identity is set by what he does in time” (p. 8).

Friday 16 May 2008

Oliver Davies, Paul D. Janz, and Clemens Sedmak: Transformation Theology

Oliver Davies, Paul D. Janz, and Clemens Sedmak, Transformation Theology: Church in the World (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 179 pp. (thanks to our friends at T&T Clark)

This is a peculiar book. It is co-authored by three distinguished scholars at King’s College London: theologian Oliver Davies (author of the brilliant Theology of Compassion), philosopher Paul Janz, and ethicist Clemens Sedmak. The book announces a new theological movement called “Transformation Theology,” and it launches a new book series of the same title, with projected volumes on ethics, politics and law, text and language, and the act of reading. But although the authors often refer to “Transformation Theology” as a coherent movement (see also their website), at the end of the book I was still left scratching my head, wondering exactly what it’s all about.

Having said that, I think I agree with some of the book’s basic theses. I like the fact that it’s trying to be an intervention, that it sees the theological task as a critical and polemical one. God deliver us from those “holistic” theologies whose sole aim is to keep everybody calm and happy! I also like the fact that this project takes Jesus Christ’s present reality as its point of departure – this is an excellent step, even though I’m persuaded that Karl Barth’s christology provides a more robust and more interesting way of approaching this question. Oliver Davies’ approach (chapters 1-2) is essentially Bultmannian: the early Christians thought that Jesus floated up to heaven; but that cosmology is meaningless now; so how can we understand Jesus’ continuing embodied reality today? As John Milbank has compellingly argued, such an approach presupposes that there is some secular reality more basic and more “real” than revelation itself. In light of Milbank’s critique, I reckon the best procedure is to follow Barth’s christological method: the first necessary assumption is that the reality of the risen Christ is the only reality there is. Still, I think Oliver Davies puts his finger on an absolutely critical question: if Jesus is forever embodied as a human being, then where in the world is he? (An alternative way of answering this question – which Davies doesn’t consider – is Robert Jenson’s elegant proposal: Jesus is ascended bodily into heaven; and the location of heaven is the eucharistic altar.)

Most of all, I like the fact that this book construes divine revelation not as a conceptual key which unifies thought, but precisely as a rupture within thought itself, a “wound of knowledge” (the book is heavily influenced by Rowan Williams). I wasn’t entirely convinced by Clemens Sedmak’s approach here (chapters 5-6) – he speaks of the “wound of knowledge” and of the rupture in thought, but at times this started to sound like a Kantian “limit” which stands over against thought; thinking can take you so far, but no further.

In contrast, Paul Janz (whose chapters 3-4 are the best part of the book) speaks very acutely of revelation as a generative rupture, an event which sets thought in motion. Thus Janz – following Rowan Williams – describes the divine action as “a creative generation which can never be subsumed within theology because it is theology’s own generating ground and source” (p. 102).

On this basis, Janz develops what I take to be the book’s most promising proposal: that dogmatics needs to be grounded in ethics, since thought is generated by an action which always precedes it. Theology, he writes, “must be an ethics before it is a dogmatics or before it is doctrine…. It is ‘Christian ethics’ which must today take the place of a ‘fundamental theology’, to which all secondary doctrinal treatments must then always refer back, or within which they must be grounded” (pp. 108-9). This is potent stuff – so long as we remember that the relation between dogmatics and ethics is not that between thought and a limit which structures it, but between thought and the creative event which grounds and animates it.

But although I found many things to appreciate in this book, I still wasn’t entirely sure what the book was trying to do, what it wanted from me. If it’s intended as a manifesto for a new theology, then perhaps what’s lacking is a sharper polemical edge. I was very pleased when, in the prologue, the authors insisted that “this theological project is critical and not ‘holistic’” – it’s concerned with “resistances,” not cheap resolutions. But this critical dimension simply isn’t sharp enough or clear enough. At the end, I wasn’t quite sure which theologies were being resisted, or why. At times, the authors frame their work as a critical response to Radical Orthodoxy. At times, it looks like an attempt to retrieve Schleiermacher in opposition to Barth. And at times, it’s framed simply as a critique of all theologies which privilege intellectual “concepts” over the “sensible reality” of embodied life. Maybe the polemics here are just far too broad, and therefore too blunt. Or maybe starting a new theological movement just isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In any case, it will be interesting to keep an eye on this new series from T&T Clark. As far as I can tell, the next book in the series will be Paul Janz’s work on ethics, The Command of Grace – and if Janz’s chapters in the present volume are anything to go by, that next book will certainly be something to look out for.

Update: Andy was disappointed by this book as well – see his review.

Thursday 15 May 2008

The meme spreads

Here are some of the links so far to our new meme – if I missed your post, feel free to add your link in a comment (and I’ll keep adding new links to the top of the list).

I have been tagged
Movie Meme
Movie Meme
Movie Meme
That one movie meme
Me me meme
One Movie, Not So Much
Some of my movies
Audie Murphy
Movie Nostalgia
Movie and book memes
Movie meme
Finally! A Post! It's A Meme Unfortunately...
One Movie Meme
I've been tagged by blanne
much overdue update
Take me to New York, I'd love to see LA...
Movie Meme
Movie Meme
Meme Movies/Books
One (Stolen) Movie Meme
Om Shanti Shanti
Meme Vice
Book and Movie Meme
Movie Facts
Movie meme...
Been a while...time to start again
Awesome Movie Survey
Movie Moments
Movie meme
One Movie Meme
The one movie meme
my movie meme
Movie meme
movie meme
Movie Meme
Movie Meme
Movie meme
Movie Atheistic Drivel
One Movie Meme
One movie meme
One Movie Meme
Movie Meme
Another film meme...
Movie Meme
One Movie Meme
Movie meme
Movie memery
One Movie Meme (Picking up a gauntlet...)
One Movie Meme
One Movie Meme
The One Movie Meme
Meme Combo
Two Memes
One Movie Meme
Movie meme I saw this on Vicki's blog...
movie meme
Movie meme
Movie Meme
Movie Meme
The One Movie Meme
The One Movie Meme
The One Movie Meme
The one movie meme.
One Movie
Movie meme
My “one movie meme”
One movie
The One Movie Meme
The One Movie Meme
One movie meme
The One Movie Meme
One Movie
Movie meme
Me and the movies
One Movie
One Movie Meme
One Movie …
Day 14 Bonus
One movie meme
The one movie meme
Movie Meme
A movie meme
Craig's Movie "Meme"

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Daniel Radosh: Rapture Ready! Adventures in the parallel universe of Christian pop culture

Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (New York: Scribner, 2008), 310 pp. (review copy courtesy of Scribner)

Now here’s a fun bit of weekend reading. Daniel Radosh, a liberal New York Jew (who blogs here), sets out to discover what Christian pop culture is all about. Americans spent more than $7 billion on Christian products in 2006. This is big business, and, as Radosh soon learns, there’s an entire parallel world out there, a vast alternative to mainstream pop culture, “like a mirror universe from a science fiction tale” (p. 2).

The book does not attempt a systematic analysis of evangelical pop culture. Instead, it unfolds as a series of quirky “adventures.” Radosh wanders across the landscape of American Christianity, describing numerous colourful characters and events along the way. Although he begins his journey with considerable cynicism, he remains an open and inquisitive adventurer.

Indeed, the book’s real charm lies in Radosh’s capacity for surprise – he frequently revises his view of Christian pop culture; he is easily impressed by the good in people (even when they’re a little crazy); and he’s quick to offer a generous interpretation wherever possible. The result, then, is a good-humoured and surprisingly sympathetic sketch of this strange parallel universe.

Of course, Radosh has no sympathy for some aspects of Christian pop culture. He has nothing good to say about the absurdly sincere born-again actor, Stephen Baldwin (he satirises Baldwin in a hilarious staged interview, one of the cruellest and funniest parts of the book). And when he visits a Christian wrestling match, he can finally only shake his head: “I decided that maybe some forms of pop culture really can’t be made authentically Christian” (p. 248). Let’s hope he’s right.

Similarly, Radosh has nothing but contempt for the phenomenally popular Left Behind series – a series of books whose theological inanity and ethical debasement are matched only by their abysmal literary quality. Commenting on the rampant religious violence of the novels (he quotes the final novel, where Jesus returns in glory: “Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor…”), Radosh offers the wry conclusion: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, motherfucker” (p. 78).

Radosh is also rightly critical of the dehumanising effects of the evangelical abstinence movement, with its gender essentialism (men are aggressive by nature, women submissive), its “virginity fetish,” and its depiction of women’s bodies “as objects to be managed by men: first by fathers then by husbands” (p. 253). Following in the wake of the abstinence movement comes the Christian sex advice movement, with its belated attempt to help evangelicals overcome their deeply ingrained sexual inhibitions. Although Radosh is sympathetic with the aims of this movement, he is discomfited by its simplistic biblicism. It might be amusing to hear a sex manual using the Song of Songs to provide a clinical explanation of the mysteries of oral sex and genital fondling. But Radosh wonders whether the Bible is really “a universal instruction manual” of this kind; whether something important is lost when the Bible is turned into a mere self-help manual for married couples. “Paradoxically, by trying to read the Bible as all-encompassing, pop Christianity actually diminishes it” (p. 275).

There is, then, a close relationship between the various Christian chastity/sex movements and the otherwise very different phenomenon of evangelical creationism. In one of his most unsettling adventures, Radosh encounters Ken Ham (who frightens him, and strikes him as a “borderline sociopathic” character), together with other leading creationists. In a visit to the Creation Museum, Radosh is confronted by the chilling portrayal of an entire alternative universe in which the history of the cosmos is constructed through a quasi-scientific reading of Genesis. Again, the Bible is diminished – and, frankly, rendered incoherent and ridiculous – through such an all-encompassing application to contemporary questions.

Although Radosh rightly critiques (and occasionally ridicules) these diverse aspects of Christian pop culture, his overall impressions remain hopeful and positive. In most of his adventures he is surprised by what he encounters. For instance, he is expecting the worst when he meets spiritual warfare novelist Frank Peretti, since Peretti’s novels rail venomously against liberals and leftists. But Peretti offers a surprising and touching confession. Discussing his novels from the 90s, he grows suddenly sad, and then admits: “I was very angry when I wrote that…. I lashed out a lot at people” (p. 116).

Again, Radosh is charmed by a prominent Christian supplier who talks with candid regret about the poor quality of much Christian merchandise – referring to some Christian paintings, for instance, the supplier remarks: “You had to love Jesus in order to hang this on your wall, because it was almost a sacrifice” (p. 102). And when Radosh explores the strange world of Christian comedy, he is led to wonder whether “our culture war could be eased just a bit if the public face of evangelicalism was a good-natured, tolerant, funny ordinary guy instead of James Dobson” (p. 233).

Above all, Radosh’s adventures are marked by a glowing portrait of Jay Bakker – a progressive New York pastor, and son of disgraced fundamentalist preacher Jimmy Bakker – who emerges as the book’s real hero. In Radosh’s eyes, Jay Bakker represents the future of American evangelicalism, and his growing friendship with Bakker seems largely responsible for his hopeful evaluation of the future of Christian culture.

Most of all, however, Radosh’s hopeful outlook arises from his confidence in consumerism itself. Concluding the book, he suggests that the problems in evangelical pop culture – its tendency towards intolerance, for example – will be resolved as Christian pop culture is more fully assimilated into the mainstream market. The weirdness and bigotry that characterises some aspects of evangelical culture will thus eventually be smoothed out – not so much through dialogue, discussion and reflection, but merely through the levelling operation of market forces. The result will be a more liberal and more tolerant Christian culture – in short, a more precise mirror of the values of mainstream culture.

By and large, this analysis is probably correct: in the setting of late capitalism, the creation of a vibrant and distinctive niche market goes hand in hand with the emergence of mass homogeneity. But I’m not so sure this is a comforting prospect. Instead, it ought to raise some disturbing questions about the nature of evangelical culture. It seems to me that the only flaw in Radosh’s analysis is his assumption that evangelical consumerism can be neatly distinguished from evangelical identity – as though the modification of evangelicalism’s consumer culture would not also be a modification of its religious identity.

The issues involved here are, to my mind, far more urgent than Radosh’s concerns about helping evangelicals to become nicer and more tolerant. We should perhaps ask what it means for religious believers to identify themselves by the merchandise they consume; what it means when we allow ourselves to become not a community, but a sub-culture, and thus one more market niche alongside others.

As Slavoj Žižek has observed, the logic of late capitalism presses towards the commodification of a niche identity for its own sake; the Christian merchandise I buy is not itself the desired commodity, but it is merely an ephemeral signifier of the real commodity, which is my identity as a particular sort of Christian. In this case, the product I am really purchasing is radically non-material, wholly spiritual; I am purchasing religious meaning and belonging, religious “community” (since the merchandise allows me to participate in a specific market niche). Here, any neat separation between my “faith” and my “consumer culture” is simply fictitious. To change the latter simply is to change the former.

So what we need today, I believe, is a sustained theological critique of this commodification of Christian identity, and a recognition that the spiritual identity provided by a consumer sub-culture is a seductive simulacrum, an obstacle to the risky venture of Christian faith. If we are to find authentic Christian identity, it will arise not from the benevolent operations of the market, but in a community which creates a new economic space within the world, with its own practices and its own ways of belonging. (More on this to follow soon in my review of William Cavanaugh’s excellent new book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.)

In conclusion, I think Daniel Radosh provides valuable insight into the workings of American evangelical pop culture. The book is a real page-turner, littered with surprising discoveries, zany characters, humorous observations and wise insights (it also has an excellent companion website). In the end, though, I just can’t share Radosh’s optimism about the future of Christian pop culture. Instead, my hope would be for the demise of this pop culture, and for the appearance instead of a church that knows its own identity – not an identity that can be bought and secured, but one that comes freely and without guarantees, only because it is sheer gift.

St Paul and philosophy: register now!

If you’re lucky enough to be in Vancouver next month, then time is running out to register for the conference, St Paul’s Journeys into Philosophy, 4-6 June 2008, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“Join us for a conference which explores the critical appropriations of Saint Paul by modern and contemporary Continental philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, and others. An international group of philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars and literary theorists will present papers on a wide range of themes arising from this recent philosophical appropriation of Saint Paul. Plenary speakers include Stephen Fowl, Paul Griffiths, Travis Kroeker and J. Louis Martyn. There will also be presentations by Creston Davis, Neil Elliott, Paul Gooch, Douglas Harink, Chris Huebner, Mark Reasoner, Jeffrey Robbins, Gordon Zerbe, Jens Zimmerman and others.”

To register, visit the website or email Doug Harink.

Monday 12 May 2008

The one movie meme

The one book meme – which started here nearly two years ago – is still slowly spreading through the blogosphere. So I reckon it’s time for the sequel: welcome to the One Movie Meme. If you’d like to participate, just post your answers to these questions and tag five people.

1. One movie that made you laugh
Pirates of the Caribbean

2. One movie that made you cry

3. One movie you loved when you were a child

Return of the Jedi

4. One movie you’ve seen more than once

The Godfather

5. One movie you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it

Down with Love

6. One movie you hated

The 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

7. One movie that scared you

Pan’s Labyrinth

8. One movie that bored you
Last Days (2005)

9. One movie that made you happy

Life Is Beautiful

10. One movie that made you miserable

The Downfall

11. One movie you weren’t brave enough to see

Wolf Creek

12. One movie character you’ve fallen in love with

Amélie in Amélie (played by Audrey Tautou)

13. The last movie you saw


14. The next movie you hope to see

No Country for Old Men

15. Now tag five people:
In the hoping of getting the meme started, I’ll tag anyone who happens to read this!

NOTE: You can keep track of the spreading meme here.

Here and there

Welcome to our 1500th post here at F&T. Thanks for reading!

And Halden is so good and so prolific that I need to devote a separate section to his recent posts:

Sunday 11 May 2008

Pentecost sermon: Spirit lite

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It won’t go away. The spirituality craze I mean. I thought it might. This is an age of faddism, and it’s also an age when most people have the attention span of a gnat, but it looks like spirituality is here to stay. Now it’s even made the telly. Not long ago Channel 4 brought to our screens a “reality” programme called Spirituality Shopper. The former triple jump star and media Christian Jonathan Edwards shadowed a bunch of very sad sods as they sampled in life what you will find in print in the “Mind, Body and Spirit” section of Waterstone’s, picking-and-mixing – very postmodern – everything from crystals to the Kabbalah. These shoppers hoped that these “therapies” might provide a quick fix to cure their sick souls, but apart from the odd buzz they were disappointed. Through all this bathos Edwards somehow managed to keep a straight face, when no doubt he was thinking, “Well, duh!”

I’m being very critical. But I promise that this is going to be an evenly balanced sermon – I’ve got a chip on both shoulders! Wait till I get to the church! But for a time I want to continue to deconstruct what you could call “Spirit Lite”.

I’ve already hinted at one criticism – it’s a market phenomenon, it’s a product for consumers, its therapy is purely retail, it’s the religious result of late capitalism’s only moral value, choice. Karl Marx would have a field day with it.

That’s the economics of it. The psychology is even worse. For at its centre is not the Spirit – indeed the spirituality business should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act – no, at its centre is the self, indeed the narcissistic self. Narcissus, you may remember from Greek mythology, was a Greek Brad Pitt, gloriously good-looking, and all the girls adored him; but Narcissus broke their hearts because he and himself were already the perfect couple. One of the admirers he slighted decided not to get mad but to get even, so she prayed to the gods for redress. The great goddess Nemesis answered her prayer, decreeing, “May he who loves not others love himself only” – which, of course, Narcissus already did! Then one day as he bent over a pool to get a drink, Narcissus saw his own reflection, which was, literally, drop-dead gorgeous, as he swooned, fell into the water, and drowned (although another version of the story has Narcissus so fixated on his image that he stares himself to an anorexic death). Just so Spirit Lite has been called “religion for the L’Oreal generation: ‘Because you’re worth it’” (Giles Fraser). It is indeed a form of grooming, a feel-good faith that makes no more demands than your hairdresser.

Then there are the philosophical problems inherent in Spirit Lite, a series of false dichotomies. One is the cloven fiction of soul and body which issues, on the one hand, in Spirit Lite’s preoccupation with states of consciousness, and, on the other hand, in our cultural obsession with thinness and fitness. But human beings are not souls and bodies, we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies – we are psychosomatic unities – and if you try to cut us in two you end up, symbolically, with the zombies so chillingly portrayed in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Another phoney dualism is that between soul and mind. This fits with the dumbed-down anti-intellectualism of our age. To adapt one of my favourite sayings from Dorothy Sayers, spirituality shoppers would rather die than think – and most of them do. Their critical faculties have gone into hibernation. The last thing they want to hear about is rational analysis of their enthusiasms; indeed scientists, with their rigorous experimental testing of hypotheses, are the bête noirs of Spirit Lite. And is it a coincidence that the “Mind (it should be “Mindless”), Body and Spirit” section at Waterstone’s is at the opposite end of the shop from the philosophy section?

And then there is the bogus dualism of private and public. Spirit Lite is personal, it’s what you do in solitude, society and its institutions are a distraction. But quite apart from the fact that it is quite simply impossible for there to be private experiences unmediated by language, culture, and traditions, all of which are quintessentially public, can you see how irresponsibly self-serving is this untenable position? Above all, how indifferent it is to challenges to one’s life-style and politics, to quaint notions like self-sacrifice and civic duty? Let wars be fought, let children starve, let the planet go to blazes, who cares as long as I’ve got inner tranquillity.

Okay, hands up, I caricature a bit, but no more so than the church itself is caricatured by those who have left it for Spirit Lite. On the other hand, do they not have a point? And that’s the chip on my other shoulder: isn’t the very existence of Spirit Lite a symptom that something has gone seriously wrong with the church? Evidently a lot of people feel either that there is no room for them in the church’s conversation about God, or that this conversation is so trivial that for serious spiritual discourse they must look elsewhere, even if elsewhere is “far out”.

Moreover, has not the church itself colluded in the various forms of false dichotomies I have observed? The idea that the gospel is “fire insurance”, that the church’s business is getting souls to heaven, not to getting people right and whole on earth? The notion that theology is for scholars or egghead ministers, but don’t trouble folk in the pews with having to think through their faith, it will only disturb the simple faithful, not to mention the widely held view that science is at odds with religion? And, last but not least, the mischief-making mantra “Keep faith out of politics”? Have not the seeds of these weeds been blown into the world from the church?

Writing in The Guardian in response to a critique of Spirit Lite like my own, Jane Lapotaire, addressing church leaders, wrote this: What the church has “to face up to is that, for many people who need a spiritual dimension in their lives, the Church has patently failed them…. Yes, Channel 4’s Spirituality Shopper was banal. Yes, it was ‘consumer’ led; but don’t mock it. Because it’s the failure of your profession that leads to empty lives and the many who clutch at straws.” To which all I can say is, “Ouch!”

Well, not quite all I can say, as at least I’ve got to finish one of those boring sermons that are evidently evacuating the church! But even if I would want to question the assumption that the church must allow the world to set its agenda, there is much in what Jane Lapotaire says that rings true and confirms that the church is in no position to be smug and dismissive. In place of Spirit Lite we have to offer, if you like, Spirit Right. What will that look like? What kind of spirituality will it be? Three bullet points.

First, it will be a humane spirituality. It will be warm and welcoming, life-giving and earth-affirming. There will be none of Trollope’s odious clergyman Mr Slope in Barchester Towers about it, who “regards the greater part of the world as being infinitely too bad for his care,” nor any of Joanne Harris’ repressed priest in Chocolat, who regards physical pleasure as “the crack into which the devil sends his roots.” It will be holistic, keeping together what Spirit Lite would put asunder, recognising that the worlds of the prosaic and the miraculous intermingle – that, as spiritual director Eugene Peterson so graphically puts it, “’Pass the broccoli’ and ‘Hear the word of the Lord’ carry equal weight in conversations among the people of God” (adapted). Thus it will also be a humorous spirituality. And it will be honest too. So there will be a rigorous recognition of sin, but particularly sin in its insidious form of ecclesiastical self-righteousness and self-certainty. Hence the brilliant title of a book by the American feminist theologian Carter Heyward: it’s called Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right.

Second, it will be a heterogeneous spirituality (give me a break – I’m trying to string together some aitches!) – heterogeneous meaning diverse, varied, plural, inclusive. There will be nothing “gated” or sectarian about it, no pre-defining approaches according to our tastes or dispositions, no reducing community to a projection of ourselves, no getting rid of what displeases or even offends us. Rightly it has been said that “Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to orthodoxy, a willful removal of a part from the whole” (Eugene Peterson). Rather we will honour the different, value the strange, and pay particular attention to voices long silenced or marginalized, as well as to non-Christian voices too. We will be “catholic” in the best sense of the word.

And, third, it will be a heuristic spirituality, from the Greek word for “discovery”; that is, it will be a spirituality of pilgrimage. There will be nothing of the “we have all the answers” about it, rather the church will be what R. S. Thomas called a “laboratory of the Spirit”, fearlessly testing the truths we tease out in our tentative detections of divinity. But our explorations won’t be into anywhere else than the place where we are, nor into any other time than the present moment. And though we will be determined, we will not be in a hurry, we will be patient, and we will find time to waste time and play. Finally, we will resist the temptation of thinking that there can be spiritual progress in isolation from our relationships with fellow seekers, including the dawdlers, nor will we dictate the pace, for the head cannot move without the tail.

So: Spirit Right rather than Spirit Lite. But there’s a better word for it: Holy Spirit. Which is a pretty good aitch to end on, don’t you think?

Saturday 10 May 2008

A bargain with God?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Not long after I became a Christian, a friend of mine gave me a collection of sermons by Karl Barth. The collection was appropriately entitled Deliverance to the Captives; all the sermons were preached towards the end of Barth’s life in the city prison in Basel. One sermon in particular shocked and overwhelmed me. It was entitled “The Criminals with Him”, and took as its text a verse from Luke’s passion narrative: “They crucified him with the criminals, one on either side of him” (Luke 23:33). “Do you know what this implies?” asked Barth. “Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship.” And Barth went on to conclude: “In reality we all are these crucified criminals. And only one thing matters now. Are we ready to be told what we are? Are we ready to hear the promise given to the condemned, [and] to ‘get in line behind’ [them]?”

“Get in line behind them?” I thought. Hang on a minute, Karl! I know you’re big on grace, but aren’t you getting carried away, isn’t this taking grace a bit too far? I mean isn’t this unjust, criminals at the front of the queue to the kingdom, evil folk ahead of the good? I was particularly miffed at what Barth preached because I myself came to Christ – or rather Christ to me – out of a rather sordid existence, having lived for a time on the streets of Amsterdam and London, homeless and broke, begging, taking drugs, shoplifting just to survive. I knew what kind of people wheeled and dealed there, the crime and the violence. And now Barth tells me that I’m going to have to get in line behind this scum? And, adding insult to injury, observe: Barth made no distinction between the penitent and the impenitent thief – both were going to precede me. And, in fact, these weren’t just thieves, they were what we would now call terrorists.

Can you sympathise with my annoyance and discomfort? I’m sure you can. For my anger and confusion are, I think, typical of Christians – indeed they are the temptation of all good people, especially all good religious people. For here is what religion, at bottom, is all about: it’s about making a bargain with God. And the bargain goes like this: Lord, I give you my faith and all that goes with it: the church-going, the praying, the giving, the rectitude, the extra mile, and so on; and you, God, in return, you’ve got to be fair. If I keep my side of the bargain, I expect you to bless me with good things – health, work, family. I don’t expect life to be all strawberries and cream, but I do expect a sense of proportion – no serious illnesses, traumatic divorce, or kids on crack. Of course if I don’t keep my side of the bargain, if I lapse and behave very badly – hey, nobody’s perfect! – fair enough, I get what’s coming to me. But, Lord, we both keep to the contract. And there is an unwritten codicil to this contract: other people – they too must get what they deserve: as the righteous must prosper, so the sinner must suffer.

This is religion. Isn’t that the way it is? Isn’t that why we get so bloody, viciously vengeful, when criminals and murderers “get off lightly”? That’s not in the contract! May they rot in hell! And isn’t that why suffering, especially seemingly undeserved suffering, especially my underserved suffering, is so faith-threatening? How can it be that my child is crippled in a car accident, or my wife gets ovarian cancer and dies in a matter of months? That’s not part of the bargain!

Well, today I am here to tell you that God doesn’t do bargains. I mean the whole idea, really, is a no-brainer. Why should God do deals with us? What do we have to offer God that he doesn’t already have? And indeed – pardon the sacrilege – why should we trust God to deliver the goods we’re expecting? I mean the deity has form, doesn’t he? Two words should suffice: Good Friday. For heaven’s sake, man, God didn’t deliver his own totally sinless and obedient Son from torture and death, he watched him get strung up between those two thieves, terrorists – so what, am I God’s gift that I am going to be exempted from fortune’s slings and arrows? What makes me a special case? The idea that God might owe me for good – or them for bad – really, folks, it is fairyland. Deserve? As outlaw William Munny (Clint Eastwood) says in that great line from Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

A bargain? Think again. But we can only think again when we abandon religion and accept revelation – which is what Christianity is: revelation. Unlike religion, revelation is not something that confirms the way we think and what we think we know. On the contrary, revelation rudely interrupts the way we go about our existential business, shaking and shattering our conventional norms and complacent assurances. Although revelation is a gift – it is good news – our first response is always recoil, resistance, outrage at such an unexpected and unasked-for invasion of our moral space. In order to be redeemed, our cover must be blown, and our worlds blown away.

Do you know Flannery O’Connor’s short story entitled – succinctly – “Revelation”? It is about one Mrs Turpin from the deep South. Mrs Turpin is a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife. One day, at her doctor’s office, she is bad-mouthing the white trash and lazy blacks she has to put up with. Suddenly a mentally disturbed girl in the waiting room throws a book at her and calls her a “wart hog from hell”. Visibly shaken, Mrs Turpin returns to her farm, unable to get the girl’s offensive words out of her mind. “Wart hog” indeed! For Mrs Turpin knows that she is a good person, certainly far superior to red necks and “niggers”, and she reminds God of her rectitude, as well as of all the good work she does, especially for the church. Then she angrily asks, referring to the girl’s outrageous insult, “What did you send me a message like that for?” And then, suddenly – revelation! As she stares into the pigpen, Mrs Turpin is given a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and she begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, blacks, freaks, lunatics and other social outcasts up front, leading the way, and, taking up the rear, folk like herself, “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Yes, religion is a bargain, but revelation is no bargain, revelation is grace, it is free. Nothing is necessary, all is a gift. We have no rights, we are never owed, and we are never one up on the bastards and undeserving. That “scum” I thought I’d left behind – I didn’t: it was me too, and I took it with me. But no matter: God’s sun shines and his rain falls on the good and the evil without distinction. As Oxford Regius Professor of Divinity Marilyn McCord Adams puts it: “Expecting God to be interested in invidious distinctions among us would be like our judging the ladybugs to see which had paid us the appropriate honour!”

God is sheer, exuberant, overflowing, prodigal love, inside and out, from top to bottom. May God grant us the insight and wisdom that Mrs Turpin takes home with her that fateful night: “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Thursday 8 May 2008

Molnar, McCormack, and more: trinitarian theology after Barth

If you’re down in the Antipodes next year, you might like to come along to this conference: Trinitarian Theology after Barth: An International Symposium.

The symposium will take place 14-15 May 2009, at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand. The keynote speakers will be Paul Molnar, Bruce McCormack, Ivor Davidson, and Murray Rae. Other speakers will include Martin Sutherland, Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Andrew Burgess, Myk Habets, Adam McIntosh, and Ben Myers.

Scholars are invited to contribute original essays which deliberately work in the wake of Barth in some area of constructive trinitarian theology. The goal is not to present critical essays on Barth but to work “after Barth” in the doctrine of the Trinity. This may involve drawing directly on aspects of his work or on that of his students such as Jüngel or Torrance.

Expressions of interest should be directed to Myk Habets.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

An evangelical manifesto

Michael points us to a fascinating new document, The Evangelical Manifesto. I’ve only read the summary, but it looks as though the manifesto is specifically trying to rescue evangelicalism from the politics of the Religious Right. Signatories include Miroslav Volf, Kevin Vanhoozer, Darrell Bock, Justo Gonzalez, Mark Noll, Alvin Plantinga and Amos Yong.

Valmae Beck: on the care of criminals

A nauseating news story today in my home state of Queensland. Convicted child-murderer Valmae Beck is currently in a coma in hospital, following heart surgery this week. Some members of the public – gleefully spurred on by a certain newspaper – are “calling for authorities to let her die,” since they are “outraged” that taxpayers’ money should be paying for the medical treatment of such a wicked person. (Nearly giddy with moralism, this newspaper adds: “When she dies, taxpayers could also be expected to pay for a cremation under Queensland law” – and the same tabloid ran as its front-page headline: “Let her die with shame.”)

Such vicious moralism is driven by a direct identification of the person with her works. In contrast, the necessary gap between person and works has been highlighted by Lutheran theologian Eberhard Jüngel, in his brilliant book on Justification (pp. 269-72). Jüngel speaks of “the absolute primacy of persons over their works.” The doctrine of justification describes God’s recognition of persons irrespective both of their achievements and of their deficiencies. For that reason, Jüngel writes, a society must be assessed not primarily according to its successes and achievements, but according to its treatment of those persons who contribute nothing to the society’s political and economic life, such as children, the elderly, the infirm – and criminals.

Monday 5 May 2008

Quote of the day: pride

Stop all this weeping and swallow your pride;
You will not die, it’s not poison.

—Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues” (1965)

Saturday 3 May 2008

On the moral superiority of gays

One of Stanley Hauerwas’s most memorable essays is his 1993 piece, “Why Gays (as a Group) Are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)” (reprinted in the excellent Hauerwas Reader) – an essay in which Hauerwas argues that gays are morally superior to Christians, since they managed to get themselves excluded from military service. His point is simply that the church often fails to take its own identity seriously, and so we pose no real threat to the status quo. But imagine a church that really took itself seriously – it would be an intolerable threat, an unbearable disruption! “Could you trust someone who would think it more important to die thank to kill unjustly? Are these people fit for the military? … Would you want to shower with such people? You never know when they might try to baptize you.”

Further, Hauerwas observes that the real function of society’s “no” to gays is simply to shield ourselves from the painful truth of our own moral confusion. In a culture of drastic moral incoherence, “the moral ‘no’ to gays becomes the necessary symbolic commitment to show that we really do believe in something.” We pronounce this “moral no” precisely in order to convince ourselves of our own security; we exclude someone else in order to reassure ourselves that we are not without a moral norm. But in holding up the gay community as a moral example, Hauerwas turns the tables. He poses a prophetic challenge to the church, a challenge to our complacency and our calm assurance of our own moral superiority.

I think a similar prophetic challenge underlies Rowan Williams’ famous lecture, “The Body’s Grace”, presented to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1989. The lecture has been widely discussed – vigorously praised by some, and feverishly condemned by others. But in the first instance, we should realise that Williams was not simply trying to provide a descriptive account of same-sex desire, or a straightforward theological description of human sexuality.

First and foremost, his aim was to provoke a certain kind of response. His lecture was more a prophetic challenge than a didactic analysis: he was concerned precisely with the question of the church’s identity. Like Hauerwas’ essay, Williams’ lecture tries to rouse the church, to provoke us to action – to ask what an authentic Christian community might look like here and now, in an environment of moral confusion and fragmentation.

I have a suspicion that the real heart of Williams’ lecture is disclosed in his humorous offhand remark that, within the church, the ordinary “norm” of male-female intercourse may itself be the exemplary sexual perversion, since such intercourse can involve the action of “one agent [i.e. the husband] … who doesn’t have to wait upon the desire of the other.” As Williams puts it: “in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a ‘perversion’.”

It is at precisely this point that the fundamental intention of Williams’ lecture becomes clear: to disturb the complacency of Christians, characterised as we are by a seemingly invincible aura of moral superiority. Williams is trying to threaten us, to show us that we are not morally safe and secure. Thus his whole lecture turns on the argument that “sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion” – it’s simply not that easy; we’re not as safe as we thought we were.

As writers like Williams and Hauerwas remind us, then, the task of Christian ethics is not to shore up the status quo, not to reassure us of our own security – and certainly not to naturalise the status quo, so that our own behaviour becomes the self-evident norm against which every deviation can be identified and condemned as such. Instead, the task of Christian ethics is to bring us under the judgment of the gospel, and to remind us that our action is always fraught with danger. In every new decision we are balanced precariously on the edge of a knife. In every decision, we stand under judgment. It is the false prophet who cries “peace, peace – when there is no peace.”


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.