Monday 30 June 2008

Christ, history and apocalyptic: the politics of Christian mission

There are just a few books that I’m really anticipating this year. One of them is Nate Kerr’s forthcoming book in the new Veritas series: Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission. This was originally a Vanderbilt dissertation under Paul DeHart – and it looks like an exceptional work which brings together some of the most important (but usually separate) strands of contemporary theology. The book will be launched later this year at the AAR meeting in Chicago. Here’s the table of contents and the blurb:

  1. Introduction
  2. Ernst Troeltsch: The Triumph of Ideology and the Eclipse of Apocalyptic
  3. Karl Barth: Foundations for an Apocalyptic Christology
  4. Stanley Hauerwas: Apocalyptic, Narrative Ecclesiology, and “the Limits of Anti-Constantinianism”
  5. John Howard Yoder: The Singularity of Jesus and the Apocalypticization of History
  6. Towards an Apocalyptic Politics of Mission
“This book engages in a defense of Christian apocalyptic as the criterion for evaluating the ‘truth’ of history and of history’s relation to the transcendent political reality that theology calls ‘the Kingdom of God’. The heart of this work comprises an original genealogical analysis of twentieth-century theological encounters with the modern historicist problematic through a series of critical engagements with the work of Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Howard Yoder. Bringing these thinkers into conversation at key points with the work of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, John Milbank, and Michel de Certeau, among others, this genealogy analyses and exposes the ideologically ‘Constantinian’ assumptions shared by both modern ‘liberal’ and contemporary ‘post-liberal’ accounts of Christian politics and mission. On the basis of a rereading of John Howard Yoder’s place within this genealogy, the author outlines an alternative ‘apocalyptic historicism’, which conceives the work of Christian politics as a mode of subversive, missionary encounter between church and world. The result is a profoundly original vision of history that at once calls for and is empowered by a Christian apocalyptic politics, in which the ideologically reductionist concerns for political effectiveness and productivity are surpassed by way of a missionary praxis of subversion and liberation rooted in liturgy and doxology.”

St Paul, philosophy and politics

Geoff Holsclaw has posted some reflections on the recent Vancouver conference on Paul and philosophy. Anyone else care to offer their impressions of the conference?

Blog of the week

A new (probably temporary) feature here at F&T is the “blog of the week” – at the top of the sidebar, you’ll see a widget featuring posts from a selected blog. Our first blog of the week is The Fire and the Rose.

Sunday 29 June 2008

The pornographer's dream: or, the problem with contemporary worship

There’s been a lot of speculation in recent years about why so many evangelicals are converting to Rome and to Eastern Orthodoxy. I wonder whether the highly experiential focus of contemporary worship might have something to do with it.

The New York singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has an entertaining song entitled “Pornographer’s Dream” (from her 2007 album, Beauty and Crime). In the song, Vega asks what kind of woman a pornographer would dream about:

Would he still dream of the thigh? of the flesh upon high?
What he saw so much of?
Wouldn’t he dream of the thing that he never
Could quite get the touch of?

It’s out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils, covered in silk
He’s dreaming of what might be

Out of his hands, over his head
Out of his reach, under this real life
Hidden in veils,
He’s dreaming of mystery.

It’s a nice idea: the pornographer, from whom nothing is concealed, dreams only of concealment itself. Unlike the rest of us, his fantasies involve not naked flesh, but a body “hidden in veils, covered in silk.” For the pornographer, the only thing forbidden is mystery, so that his fantasises are of clothed women, veiled flesh.

As an analysis of pornography, I think this is completely correct. The real problem with pornography is not that it is too erotic, but that it is not erotic enough. In seeking to reveal everything, to fulfil every fantasy, it destroys the very possibility of fantasy and eroticism. And so the use of pornography ultimately results not in erotic ecstasy or euphoria, but in mere boredom.

Perhaps all this can serve as a parable for the contemporary preference for experiential worship styles. Where every church service becomes the opportunity for a life-changing experience of the divine presence; where every song and sermon and prayer is designed to produce immediate emotional impact; where the whole Christian life is transformed into the pursuit of a “naked” experience of the divine – here, the final outcome can only be a profound and paralysing boredom. And for those subjected to such boredom, the only remaining spiritual desire is for a mysterious God, a God not merely naked and exposed, but clothed in ritual, sacrament, tradition.

Why are so many evangelicals converting to Rome and Constantinople? Perhaps their infinitely deferred quest for a Deus nudus has finally resulted in an unbearable boredom. Perhaps they’re dreaming of a God who is not always promiscuously available to immediate experience, but is instead “hidden in veils, covered in silk” – a more modest, and therefore more sexy God.

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that we should avoid the pitfalls both of a promiscuous experientialism and of any reaction towards ritualism for its own sake. Instead of trying by our own efforts either to strip God or to clothe him, we should look to the place where God has both veiled and unveiled himself for us: in the event of Jesus Christ.

Friday 27 June 2008

Tastes in theology

There has been some interesting discussion in response to Halden’s proposal to summarise his basic theological outlook. One interlocutor offers the playful suggestion that a personal theological system could be re-framed as “things I think are cool.”

As a matter of fact, I think this raises a very interesting point about the way theological commitments are formed. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has spoken of the irreducibility of “taste” in philosophy: a thinker adopts certain concepts not for any “reasonable reasons” – not on the basis of rational foundations – but for reasons of taste, reasons which are finally unaccountable. Similarly, the Yale theologian David Kelsey once observed that a theological position tends to look less like a system derived from any fixed “starting point,” and more like an imaginative vision. There’s something irreducible about this: one simply glimpses things in a particular way or one doesn’t; one has a certain taste, an instinct, which makes some theological positions attractive and others impossible.

You can witness this all the time in theological discussions. I might, for instance, get into a dispute with a fundamentalist. He may have impressive reasons and arguments to support his position, but at the end of the day I’m simply unmoved by his whole point of view. I have no taste for it, I couldn’t accept it even if I wanted to (or to be more precise: I couldn’t want to accept it, since I have no taste for it). On the other hand, there might be all kinds of unresolved conceptual problems in my own theological position, but I still remain grasped by this particular theological vision, this way of seeing and imagining things.

Along similar lines, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “decision.” And I’m inclined to think that the formation of theological positions involves basic decisions which are irreducible to rational foundations. I’ve tried to tease this out a little in a forthcoming essay on Rowan Williams – here’s an excerpt:

“Theology is always a risk and a venture; there is no legitimate way to ensure its safety in advance. The practice of theology involves the irreducibility of decision – a decision which is not the necessary outcome of any rational process, and so cannot be rendered safe and assured. In its newness and its non-necessity, the decision refuses all guarantees – which is simply to say that theology is a venture of faith, and thus always ‘dangerous thought’, thought balanced on the edge of a knife.”

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Link, link, link

Monday 23 June 2008

Theology with Sufjan Stevens: heaven in ordinary

At the moment I’m absolutely infatuated with the music of Sufjan Stevens. Commentators have often talked about Stevens’ creativity as a musician and composer; but he’s also an extraordinary lyricist. Many of his best songs are ballads, stories that relate, with simple poignancy, the everyday dramas of friendship, love and family life. And it’s here that Stevens’ poetic gift really lies: the ability to evoke, with just a few words, the tragic and beautiful ambiguities of personal relationships. Take for example the opening lines of his song about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr:

His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed

We are brought immediately into a relation of startling intimacy to this troubled child who would become a killer. Or take the delicate opening line of “Flint (for the Unemployed and Underpaid)” – “It’s the same outside” – a line that subtly evokes all the sadness and disappointment of a life that has not gone according to plan, a life stripped of hope and promise.

Or, again, take “Romulus”, a song about children growing up with their grandfather, unloved by their own mother. When their mother moves interstate, Stevens sings:

She moved away quite far
Our grandpa bought us a new VCR

In my opinion, this couplet is one of Stevens’ most perfect accomplishments. The contrast between the mother’s neglect and the grandfather’s tenderness is almost unbearable. The grandfather’s simple gesture – so understated, so gentle in its helplessness – evokes the man’s whole character in just a few words, capturing perfectly the shape of his relationships to the grandchildren and to his uncaring daughter. With these lines, the grandfather immediately becomes the truest and noblest of all the many colourful characters who people Sufjan Stevens’ albums.

Together with this gift for evoking human relationships, we must add Stevens’ exquisite sense of place: with a single phrase, he can capture the precise atmosphere of a place, its peculiar flavour and character. Take for example the lines from “Holland”:

Sleeping on Lake Michigan
Factories and marching bands

Or the description of a road trip in “Chicago”:

I drove to New York
In a van, with my friend
We slept in parking lots

Such descriptions of people and places are like the brush-strokes of an accomplished artist: just a few strokes, deceptively simple, and everything comes to life. The most mundane and unexceptional things – a roadside parking lot, a video player – become full of life and colour and beauty. In a word, they become glorious. The English poet George Herbert has spoken of “heaven in ordinary” – and I think this could also serve as a fitting summary of Sufjan Stevens’ poetic vision.

In particular, the evocation of the beauty of the everyday is characteristic of the religious dimension of Stevens’ songs. Let me focus here on one of his most remarkable songs, “Casimir Pulaski Day”. It’s worth quoting the lyrics in full (but you should really listen to it):

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I found the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of you mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

The story is plain enough: an adolescent boy loves a girl with cancer; she dies; years later, he finds a card which reminds him of her, and he is again brokenhearted. But throughout the song, there is a peculiar chorus: “All the glory that the Lord has made.” In the first place, it seems strange to speak of God’s glory in a song like this, where God’s own role appears to be a purely passive one. God is distinguished in this story precisely by his absence and inactivity: they pray for healing, but nothing happens; when the girl finally dies, even the cardinal strikes out in confusion and frustration. The God of this song is a God who does not intervene – and yet each moment, each memory, remains charged with God’s glory.

Indeed, as the song progresses we realise that the speaker’s relation to God is marked by a deep ambivalence. What kind of God is this, who lights up even our losses and griefs with beauty? What God is this, who shines on us even in the hour of death, so that our most painful trials are achingly transfigured? When the adolescent boy sees the girl dead, he is struck even then by her beauty, by the light and shade of the scene:

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

And turning from the girl’s face, he looks out the window – only to be confronted by the face of God:

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

Here is God’s glory, lighting up the world, transfiguring an ordinary day into a “holiday” (literally “holy day”). Here is God’s glory even in the midst of death and abandonment. It is indeed a “complication.” In this song, God is not the opiate that makes it easier to cope with death and loss. Death becomes more “complicated” when God is there.

But we’d be misunderstanding the song if we imagined it to be depicting some cold, unfeeling deity who stands at an impassive distance from our pain. On the contrary, we are confronted with the true paradox of God in the final verse. God is the one who displayed his glory “when He took our place” in Jesus Christ, entering into our deepest griefs from within. And yet this same God is now encountered as the one who “took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” The same God who took our place now takes life away. He is there with us in death, and we encounter his presence both as a weight of “glory” and as an unbearable wound.

This is an extraordinarily vivid depiction of grief and loss and memory. But it’s also – and above all – a remarkably hopeful song, full of light and beauty and the freshness of morning air. If there is confusion here – “the complications you could do without” – then even this confusion itself is finally taken up into the light and shade of God’s overcoming glory. The God encountered in grief and loss is the God who has already gone ahead of us, already taken our place in Jesus Christ. And so this God gathers up all things into glory: even in the hour of death, it is his face that turns towards us in the radiance of glory, and in the beauty of grace.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Dying for your country?

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

—Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

Barth blog conference: summary

The second annual Karl Barth Blog Conference has now finished. Here is an index of all the posts:

  1. Welcome to the Second Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference (2008)

  2. Introduction: The Impossible Possibility? Philosophy and Theology in the Work of Eberhard Jüngel, by Jon Mackenzie.

  3. “The Passion of God”: Some Questions for Jüngel on Divine Passibility, by Scott Jackson. Response by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce.

  4. A Still Greater Historicity: Hegel, Jüngel, and the Historicization of God's Being, by Halden Doerge. Response by Adam McInturf.

  5. Vestigia Trinitatis: More than a Hermeneutical Problem, by Jason T. Ingalls. Response by Shane Wilkins.

  6. Beyond Foundations: An exploration of the ‘transfoundational’ methodology of Karl Barth., by Jon Mackenzie. Response by Chris TerryNelson.

  7. Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann, by David W. Congdon. Response by Sergi Avilés.

  8. Conclusion and Table of Contents

Friday 20 June 2008

Whose rationality? Which apologetics?

Okay, I’ve never been an enthusiast for apologetics. But some time ago I wrote a little article for the Case magazine on an “Apologetics of Imagination” (summarised here) – a proposal for a kind of Barthian, non-foundationalist approach to apologetics. The Aussie theologian Andrew Bain then published a lengthy critique, entitled “An Apology for Imperialist Apologetics.” His main point was that my proposal is too postmodern and too relativistic; that I evacuate truth from Christian speech. Drawing on Oliver O’Donovan’s view of authority, Andrew Bain argued that I was undermining the gospel’s own commitment to Christ’s “imperial” lordship. So anyway, the new issue of the magazine includes my response to this critique. In case it’s of interest, I’ve reproduced the full text here:

Whose Rationality? Which Apologetics? A Reply to Andrew Bain

In his “Apology for Imperialist Apologetics,” Andrew Bain observes that the Christian message sometimes requires “strong, forceful rhetoric,” and that Christ’s imperial authority should not be downplayed in the interests of a peaceable apologetics. Indeed, he notes that to “eschew strong assertions of Christ’s rule” would simply be to misrepresent the gospel, since the gospel proclaims Christ as Lord, not merely as one option alongside others.

I could hardly agree more. When I criticised a rhetoric of violence and called for an ethics of apologetic discourse, my point was not that Christians ought to be nice, or that we should speak the gospel only in a soft tone of voice. On the contrary, I believe the Christian message is concerned with truth – and that means universal truth. The gospel is nothing else than an announcement of the universality of a particular event in history. To say the word “God” is to speak of reality as a whole, and it is thus to speak a truth which concerns everyone without exception. To be a Christian is to be seized irresistibly by this truth, and so to become a witness, a subject militantly committed to the universal reach of this truth.

To say that the gospel requires “forceful rhetoric” and “strong assertions” is thus saying still too little: it requires my very life, so that even my body is seized and commanded by the militancy of the gospel’s truth. That is why, etymologically, the “witness” is precisely the “martyr”: the rhetoric of the gospel unfolds not merely as strong speech, but as the most radical bodily gesture which performs truth’s powerless victory and boundless reach.

My critique of rhetorical violence was not, therefore, a summons to soft-spoken niceness. Bearing witness is not always a nice business (when done properly, it ends in a bloody death). My point, rather, was that our gospel-speaking should look more like imaginative story-telling than like rational argumentation. It should sound more like an invitation and a summons to decision than like a proof which constrains and coerces.

In his celebrated book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that there is no universal rationality which could adjudicate between the claims of rival traditions, since any given rationality is always already constructed and mediated by a particular tradition. This means that there is no neutral rationality. Every seemingly innocent appeal to a neutral, objective rationality conceals the hegemony on which such rationality depends. As John Milbank rightly remarks, “every supposedly objective reasoning … disguises the power which is its sole support.”

The crucial question, therefore, is whether the Christian message is itself transformed into something quite different when it is submitted to quasi-objective (Kantian) rational norms, or when it becomes an instrument of coercive reason; whether an apologetics of rational persuasion undercuts the fundamental character of the gospel as a call to decision and a summons to freedom.

Let me put it another way: where there is rational persuasion there is no longer any need for decision, since I am simply compelled by force of reason. A rhetoric of peace and freedom, on the other hand, is a mode of speech in which the gospel’s decision-character is preserved and maintained, so that the gospel is articulated as a call to conversion, a summons to a radical reorientation of life (which includes a reorientation of reason itself!), so that the whole world is now re-envisioned through the lens of the gospel.

This is the approach which I labelled an “apologetics of imagination,” and which John Milbank rather playfully describes as the endeavour to “persuade people – for reasons of ‘literary taste’ – that Christianity offers a much better story.” To proclaim the gospel is to tell this “better story” – a story which is, empirically, one narrative alongside others, but which functions as a kind of metanarrative, since its truth reaches out and comprehends all things within itself.

To grasp this story (with its own internal coherence and rationality), one must be grasped by it in a moment of decision. This decision is what the gospel calls conversion. To clarify the nature of this decision is the task of apologetics.

An interview with Charles Taylor

The Other Journal is running a three-part interview with Charles Taylor, discussing The New Atheism and the Spiritual Landscape of the West.

And on a related note, Eric points us to an exciting panel on belief and metaphysics at this year’s AAR meeting in Chicago.

Monday 16 June 2008

Karl Barth blog conference

This year’s Karl Barth blog conference is now up and running. Over the coming days, there’ll be about a dozen posts discussing Barth and the theology of his greatest student, Eberhard Jüngel. You can read the summary here, and the first post here.

I’ve also added a widget to the top of the sidebar, to help you keep track of the posts as they appear. Thanks to WTM for all the hard work he puts into running this excellent event!

In New Zealand

I’ll be spending a chilly week down in New Zealand, giving some talks in Dunedin and Wellington. So if you’re in the neighbourhood, you might like to come along and join us. Here’s the schedule:

Wednesday 18 June, University of Otago
11 am: Seminar on Milton and liberal politics with the English and Political Studies departments
2 pm: Seminar on Karl Barth’s interpretation of Paul with the Theology department

Thursday 19 June, National Library, Wellington
6 pm: The 2008 Founder Lecture: “The Invention of Reason: Milton and the Theology of Secular Politics,” held in the National Library auditorium

Sunday 15 June 2008

World youth day: Benedict XVI in Sydney

Next month, hundreds of thousands of Catholics will be descending on Sydney for World Youth Day 2008. The cover story of today’s Weekend Australian Magazine is a nice piece on Benedict XVI, written by the conservative Catholic politician Tony Abbott. Unfortunately it’s not yet available on the magazine website – but here’s the best part:

“If anyone is capable of providing persuasive answers [to contemporary questions about faith and spirituality], it’s the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, described by Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell as the world’s ‘most distinguished living Catholic theologian’. On the other hand, if any organisation is capable of turning what could be a historic, liberating moment into the religious version of a corporate general meeting, with singing, it’s the Australian Catholic Church…. The danger is that the Pope will be suffocated in formality and expected to read committee-drafted scripts [e.g. an apology to victims of sexual abuse] rather than allowed to ‘dwell amongst us full of grace and truth’.”

Saturday 14 June 2008

The most un-Anglican things

My friend Aaron is leaving his pastoral job in the Anglican Church to take up a new position in another denomination (the Uniting Church). So in order to celebrate properly, he needs your advice – he asks: “What is the most un-Anglican thing I can do this Monday?” Okay, here are four suggestions to start with:

  • Don’t drink any alcohol.
  • Express an uncompromising opinion about something.
  • Try talking about church and ministry without using the word “incarnational.”
  • Express unqualified admiration for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Anyone want to add to the list? Or, if you’re not an Anglican, you might like to suggest your own most un-Catholic, un-Presbyterian, un-Whatever activities.

Friday 13 June 2008

Three quotes on loneliness

It is not good for man to be alone. Hitherto all things [in Genesis] that have been named, were approved of God to be very good: loneliness is the first thing which God’s eye named not good.”
        —John Milton, Tetrachordon (1645).

“Loneliness has little to do with what we do or where we do it, whether we’re married or unmarried, optimists or pessimists, heterosexual or homosexual. Loneliness has to do with the sudden clefts we experience in every human relation, the gaps that open up with such stomach-turning unexpectedness. In a brief moment, I and my brother or sister have moved away into different worlds, and there is no language we can share…. It is in the middle of intimacy that the reality of loneliness most dramatically appears.”
        —Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness (1994), pp. 121-26.

“I’m a stranger here and no one sees me –
Except you.”
        —Bob Dylan “Nobody ’Cept You” (1973)

Wednesday 11 June 2008

The dangers of Obamania: why Barack Obama is bringing out the worst in the American public

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

‘This country is without hope’. Such was Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement after months of driving across the surreal wastelands and oases of debauchery that litter the American southwest—a journey he catalogued in his astonishing book, Amérique. But this judgment wasn’t intended as an expression of typically smug European disdain for the eccentricities of American life. It was rather a purely empirical observation that Americans await nothing. There is nothing better out there or to come. As Baudrillard observes, the paradox of America is that ‘it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved’.

This utopian dimension is what allows for the immodesty that foreigners directly associate with American life: it is not the product of arrogance so much as it is of solipsism, a fundamental aloneness in the world, a sense of the incomparability of American culture with any other. The perverse twist, however, is that America is a kind of reflexive utopia that depends on the rapt fascination of the rest of the world to sustain its self-image. And it is this combination of solipsism and exhibitionism in American life that gives one the inescapable feeling that watching the gyrations of its culture and its political posturing is rather like watching somebody shamelessly self-pleasuring.

And this, I contend, begins to explain the very peculiar place that hope occupies within the quotidian life of Americans themselves, and what makes hope such a significant factor in political discourse. Hope is fundamentally the way that Americans relate to the ideal of their utopian ‘freedom’, and yet not as an emotional attachment to some future possibility. Rather, hope is the palliative that soothes the inevitable disaffection that people experience with ‘actually existing America’ by dismissing their failure to realise the American ideal as a mere misalignment of image and reality. Nothing needs to be changed in reality; it is only the image, ‘the look’, that needs adjusting. This quality was grasped with uncommon precision by Don Watson, whose American Journeys joins Baudrillard’s Amérique as the most incisive analyses of the banality of American life since Tocqueville’s Démocratie. (As an American who has long since left the homeland, I’ve developed a real affection for such travelogues due to their remarkable capacity to observe what was always right in front of our faces, and thus better to document the bizarre proclivities of American life.)

‘Sometimes in America, when you are watching television, or a scene on the street, or someone “creating herself” in a café or train, you wonder if in their minds many Americans imagine they live on just the wrong of a kind of theatrical scrim, a thin floating membrane whose opening is almost impossible to find. Almost impossible: but it exists, and if you keep your hope alive and apply yourself hard enough, who can say if one day you won’t walk through it and find yourself in the magical kingdom of celebrity—and soon after you will tell a television host how, like revealed religion, it was all just meant to be.’

This is why hope is the essential currency of American politics. In so dysfunctional and narcissistic a democracy as the United States, the role of the president is, of necessity, to repair and consolidate America’s self-image. And no other proved so effective in fulfilling his presidential role than Ronald Reagan. Here, again, Baudrillard grasped perfectly the importance of Reagan’s ‘look’: ‘Ex-actor and ex-governor of California that he is, he has worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to all-American dimensions’. After the humiliation of the Vietnam War and the grotesqueries of Nixonian politics, it was Reagan who finally brought healing to America’s battered and brittle self-perception—as he used to say, ‘America is back again’.

But what Reagan in fact did was to enable Americans to resume their national slumber, to lose themselves once more in the utopian delusions of a providential existence. Vietnam and the Nixon presidency were thus not some long national nightmare (as Gerald Ford described the period), but one of the few times in its recent history when America was awake and painfully aware of the ugliness of its national life.

And it is here, finally, that we can begin to see the dangers of Obamania: like Reagan before him, Barack Obama is having a narcotic effect on the American psyche, dulling their lived awareness of the Iraq débâcle and reducing the Bush presidency to a mere aberration. His strident opposition to the war efforts in Iraq coupled with the deliberately pandering message of utopian immediacy—‘We are the change we seek’ and ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for’—are invitations to the American people to enclose themselves once again in their solipsistic cocoon, and to resume their idiotic obsession with the drama of their national life. Also like Reagan, Obama has a certain ‘star power’ that can resolve America’s PR problems with the international community, a sheer force of attraction that will restore the former glory of the American brand-name.

But lest this seem like a shallow, and perhaps even cynical, description of international diplomacy, it is interesting that Andrew Sullivan (Obama’s most amorous supporter, whose dewy-eyed devotion at times borders on homoeroticism) concedes this very point without so much as a blush of embarrassment. In his cover story for the December 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Sullivan writes: ‘What does [Obama] have to offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan.’

And notice the way Obama expresses himself in the closing paragraph of his speech on the night of the last Democratic primary (3 June 2008): ‘I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment ... when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.’

Doesn’t this demonstrate that, far from representing a seismic shift in the political landscape, Obama’s campaign is little more than a vulgar repetition of Reagan’s political narcissism? And to this extent, isn’t Obama’s message of change simply an appeal to latent antiestablishment sentiment among the public, and thus a craven affirmation of the status quo? No one has framed these concerns with more precision than Shelby Steele, who insists that Obama is ‘neither a revolutionary nor even a reformist’, but rather a gifted politician who is ‘simply infatuated with the possibilities of his own skin color within the world as it is’, and whose genius ‘is to know his currency within the status quo’. One can’t blame Obama for being such a politician; but neither should we confuse his campaign language with the kind of change that America so desperately needs.

The metaphysics of discipleship

A great post from Halden on the metaphysics of discipleship: “In Jesus’ view, the call to discipleship that he was preaching was not something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind..., a call to anarchic liberation from the dominating forces of slavery and death…. The call of Jesus to discipleship is not merely a moral call to a really, really difficult way of living for the sake of becoming virtuous. Rather it is a call that fundamentally challenges the conventional metaphysics of violence whereby we construe the entire shape of the cosmos.”

Tuesday 10 June 2008

The market and the eucharist

“We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts; the stories overlap and compete…. The call to Christians is not so much either to embrace or try to replace abstractions such as ‘capitalism’ with other abstractions. It is rather to sustain forms of economy, community, and culture that recognize the universality of the individual person…. The Christian is called not to replace one universal system with another, but to attempt to ‘realize’ the universal body of Christ in every particular exchange.”

—William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 89, 86, 88.

Monday 9 June 2008

Barth and Bultmann on St Paul

There’s some interesting work being done these days on the relation between Barth and Bultmann (including David’s dissertation, which I think has great promise). The latest issue of the Barth-studies journal, the Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie, includes an article on the dispute between Barth and Bultmann over the correct exegesis of Romans 5 – whether Paul’s theme is “Christ and Adam” (Barth) or “Adam and Christ” (Bultmann): Christof Landmesser, “Christus und Adam oder Adam und Christus: Anmerkungen zur Auseinandersetzung zwischen Karl Barth und Rudolf Bultmann im Anschluss an Röm 5,” ZDTh 23:2 (2007), 153-71.

Incidentally, this entire issue of ZDTh is devoted to Barth’s Römerbrief, so there’s some good stuff here, including articles by Georg Pfleiderer and Christian Link. The latter opens his article with the excellent statement (p. 135): “Evangelical theology is from its first beginnings a theology of the letter to the Romans. From this epistle it grew, and from this epistle it has renewed itself.”

Sunday 8 June 2008

Make your vote count

Since many bloggers like to get involved in a bit of electoral campaigning, I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon myself. So here’s an important announcement:

You’ve got my vote, Mr Nietzsche!

Thursday 5 June 2008

Here and there

  • Some free mp3 lectures by Orthodox theologians, including one by David Bentley Hart (it’s free, but you have to add it to the shopping cart and go through the checkout before it will download). And speaking of Hart, it looks like his new book will be appearing soon. Thanks be to God. (Update: More mp3 lectures by Hart here and here.)
  • An interview with Milbank on atheism: he has a lot to say about Charles Taylor, and also about “the political translation of the paradox of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ and the beginning of its entry upon the political stage.”
  • Cynthia on Duns Scotus and natural law.
  • Halden on protology and eschatology.
  • And finally, one of the worst theological posts I’ve ever read: how to preach a comforting message of damnation. (At first I thought he was joking, but alas, it’s for real...)

Wednesday 4 June 2008

OMG. Srsly? LOL!

The Better Bibles Blog points us to a new Bible translation: yep, you guessed it, an entire Bible in LOLCatSpeak. To give you a general idea, here’s the translation of 1 Timothy 1:17-20:

“Dear Invisibl Ceiling Cat, u pwn; plz hav honor n glory 4ever kthxbai. OK Timothy, now iz time 4 u 2 fite da good fite,19 wif fayth n good conscience n stuff, not liek Hymenaeus n Alexander cuz dey say bad stuffs about Ceiling Cat, so I makeded them go 2 hel HAHAHAHAHA lusers.”

You can also read a translation of all the arguments for God’s existence. And here’s the translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

Praise Ceiling Cat, yu be watchin us, yu can has cheezburger.
Wut yu want, yu gets, srsly.
In ceiling and on teh flor.
Giv us dis day our dalee cheezburger.
And furgiv us for makin yu a cookie, but eateding it.
And we furgiv wen cats steel our cookiez.
An do not let us leed into teh showa, but deliver us from teh wawter.
Ceiling Cat pwns all. He pwns teh ceiling and teh floor and walls 2.
Forevur and evuhr. Amen.


Anyway, as far as I can tell, the only theological problem with this project is that God is translated “Ceiling Cat,” while Satan becomes the “Basement Cat.” So there’s, like, two Big Cats in town? Srsly? GTFO.

Monday 2 June 2008

Hell's most wanted

In a memorable scene in The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia tells Han Solo: “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!” To which he replies: “Who’s scruffy-looking?” Similarly, when the Day of Judgment arrives, at least I’ll be able to say: “Hey, who’s a sports fan?”

H/T Mrs Thinky

Once more with Dr Seuss

In response to my question – what do Karl Barth and Dr Seuss have in common? – our friend Tortoise has written a delightful piece of Seussian poetry. You do not want to miss this! (UPDATE: The folks at WJKP liked this poem so much, they’ve kindly provided Tortoise with an additional giveaway copy of The Parables of Dr. Seuss.)

And in response to the recent review of Dr Seuss, Weekend Fisher also has an exceptionally good post. She observes that Dr Seuss is distorted whenever we “try to take a ‘deeper meaning’ than joy and delight from his books…. Wonder and gladness are precisely the deeper meaning of those books.”

Sunday 1 June 2008

A wedding homily

by Kim Fabricius (from a recent wedding in Swansea)

Reading: John 2:1-11

There’s this couple, right, the guy’s around sixty, the woman around fifty (purely coincidental!), and they’ve just gotten married, and they’re at the reception, and they’re having a quiet moment alone, when all of a sudden a beautiful little silver-winged fairy appears. She says: “For being such an exceptional couple and loving each other to bits, I will grant you each a wish.”

The bride says: “I would love to travel around the world on a long cruise with my wonderful husband.” The fairy waves her magic wand and – presto! – two tickets for the Queen Mary II appear in the bride’s hands.

The fairy then turns to the husband, who thinks for a moment and says: “Well, this is all very romantic, but an opportunity like this won’t come along again. My wish is that England re-take the ashes from the Australians.”

“Give me a break,” says the fairy, “I do wishes, not miracles.”

“Okay, okay,” says the husband. Then, guiltily turning to his bride, “Sorry, darling, but I wish you were forty years younger than me.” The bride and the fairy are very disappointed, but a promise is a promise and a wish a wish, so the fairy waves her magic wand and – presto! – the husband is suddenly ninety years old! Moral: Men who are ungrateful bastards should remember that fairies are female (and in this case Italian).

Michael and Francesca, what a great day! For Christians, after your baptisms, no doubt the greatest day of your lives. So it’s right and good that, with a church service, you’ve invited Jesus to your wedding and into your marriage. Oh God, I can hear some of you thinking, lose the Jesus bit!

But hang on – check out the story of the wedding at Cana. Big reception, great food, lots of booze – but, alas, not enough: the wine runs out. The waiters are in a state, and – Mama mia! – Jesus’ mama mia! – she has a word with her bambino. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Jesus calls over the waiters and tells them to fill six stone jars with water, each holding over twenty gallons. And they’re thinking, “This guy’s nuts!” And what’s more, they’re freaking out about health and safety, because the jars are used for Jewish rites of purification – people wash their hands in them! Nevertheless, the waiters do as they’re told, they fill the jars to the brim. “Now,” Jesus commands, “fill the carafes and take one to the high table.” With trembling hands the maître d’ pours a glass for the host to taste. “Fab!” exclaims the host. “An excellent Shiraz! Capernaum ’23?”

One more thing: a calculation. We’ve got these six (let’s say) 25-gallon jars. That would make how many bottles of wine? Well, 75 cl. to a bottle, 56.8 cl. to a pint, 8 pints to a gallon, so that makes 454.4 cl. to a gallon; so 150 gallons (from the six stone jars) equals 68,160 cl. of wine, divided by 75 cl. per bottle, equals 908.8 – round off to 900 – 900! – bottles of wine! Let’s say that, like today, there are around 100 guests at the reception. That comes to nine – nine! – bottles of wine per guest. Talk about binge drinking! And – the punchline of the story – by producing this excellent vintage in such copious quantities, Jesus “revealed his glory.”

So, yes, of course, the Jesus bit! But, of course, the point isn’t just the vino. The vino, we are told, is a “sign”. A sign of what? Well, what happens? The wine runs out. And that’s life. One way or another, the wine always runs out. Whatever the gains, life inevitably entails losses. We grow up and old. Children lose their innocence. Parents see their kids leave home. If we’re lucky enough never to become unemployed, still, one day we will have to retire. Women’s boobs and butts eventually lose the battle against gravity – however much gym-time! – while men lose hair where they want it and gain it where they don’t. Aches and pains become more frequent. And no one gets out of here alive. The wine always runs out. Add all the technology you like, human resources come to an end. That’s the bad news.

The good news – the great news: at human extremity, the resources of God. New energy springing out of weariness, new opportunities emerging from failure, and new hope arising even in the ashes of doubt and despair. There is no marriage that does not encounter times when the human resources run out. And the contemporary strategy is: keep your options open, draft a pre-nup, have a get-out clause, follow your fickle heart, re-invent yourself and move on.

This church service is itself a “sign” that Michael and Francesca will swim against the stream of this cultural banality as they give themselves to each other, to be responsible for each other, with no fine print, and in ways that will redefine their very identities, as they grow old together, care for each other, and, yes, one of them finally grieve a loss that only God can make good. But to your promise to each other today God adds his promise that he will be your invisible go-between, a resource that will never run out, and that no one, no thing, can ever take away. Michael and Francesca, may you live forever in the grace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen!

Some pastoral theology

Steve Holmes has some good pastoral reflections at the moment: a post on pastoral eschatology, where he (rightly) observes that evangelical talk about heaven and hell tends to be Pelagian; another on the indicative and the imperative; and some further reflections on being confessional.


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