Monday 28 December 2009

Best TV series of 2009

OK, here’s my pick of the year’s best 10 TV series. I should emphasise that the #1 show is light years ahead of the rest…

1. Mad Men, season 3 (AMC)
2. True Blood, season 2 (HBO)
3. Flight of the Conchords, season 2 (HBO)
4. In Treatment, season 2 (HBO)
5. Little Dorrit (BBC)
6. Glee (Fox)
7. The Librarians, season 2 (ABC)
8. Mumbai Calling (BBC)
9. United States of Tara (Showtime)
10. East West 101, season 2 (SBS) – full disclosure, I haven't actually seen this season yet, but it's an awesome show. I'm sure it will deserve a place in the list.

Friday 25 December 2009

The Idiot: a Christmas sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Once again (for the twenty-eighth time), I have read, studied and prayed the Christmas stories so that I could preach to you this morning. Here’s the deal for 2009.

Matthew’s Gospel. Written by a Jew, it focuses on Joseph, who must do a lot of sleeping because, like his coat-of-many-colours namesake, he does a lot of dreaming. Babylonian sages follow a star to Jerusalem, and then start asking questions about a neonatal king. Now when you consider (a) that the Jews didn’t like Babylonians, their one-time conquerors, and (b) that the Jews already had a king, who wouldn’t take kindly to a rival – well, nosing around for a successor to the throne was actually a pretty dumb thing for wise guys to do. And sure enough, the hateful Herod calls for his hit men and, all swords slashing, children die and mothers weep. A shambles.

Then there is Luke’s Gospel. Written by a Gentile, and narrated with a quite orchestral elegance, it focuses on Mary, who, like Joan Baez, is a feisty singer of protest songs. Emperor Augustus takes a census – to collect taxes, to invest in weapons, to oil his war machine – while august angels put on a lightshow and do an open-air gig for peace – for yokels. Then a pious old bloke named Simeon praises the Lord – but prophesies maternal grief; and an old Temple groupie named Anna cries, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at least!” Not much youth work going on in Jerusalem, is there?

Finally, John’s Gospel. At once very Jewish and very Greek, with one heck of an overture, announcing great themes – light and darkness, life and truth, grace and glory – and focussing on the Logos, “the Word”, with tightly controlled verses rising to a crescendo: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). Scholars love it. But “us” didn’t get it: the world didn’t get it, the Jews didn’t get it, nobody got it, really, except for a handful of the born-again. A handful? That’s it?

So I’ve read, marked, and inwardly digested the old stories, and I’ve come to a conclusion. To be honest, it’s a conclusion I reached long ago, but I’ve been reluctant to share it with you, because it’s not the kind of thing that ministers usually tell their congregations. But, hey, it’s Christmas, so let’s throw caution to the cold winds. My conclusion is this: God is an idiot. An absolute idiot. I mean of all the idiotic things – Christmas. The only thing I’ll give God is consistency. Look at the record: the Lord’s got form – he’s spent the whole of history acting like an idiot. No one in his right mind would do the things that God has done to redeem the world. Yep, God is an idiot.

Here is some homework for you. Later today (if you’re still sober), take a look at the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, King Jimmy’s “begats”, the family tree of Jesus. I suspect you’d expect to find a “now let us praise famous men” kind of litany. Not a bit of it. There are three sections. The first section is all about people obsessed with sex. The second section is all about people who are pathologically violent. In the third section things get better – or do they? It’s hard to tell, because most of the people listed cannot be found anywhere in the Old Testament, and, to be frank, it looks like Matthew is making it up as he goes along. So meet the ancestors: fornicators, killers, and impostors. Nice one, God.

Or just take a good look at the world (though for this exercise it would help to be drunk). God made it – “in the beginning”. A “good” start. Sure, because God is all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving. But now what have we got? The German philosopher Hegel called it a “slaughter-bench”. Was he wrong? What a mess. Thanks a lot, God. Of course clever philosophers and theologians have come up with all kinds of ingenious explanations that pass the buck to the laws of nature, or to the devil, or to sinners like you and me (three cheers for free will!), which lets God, the inscrutable old So-and-So, off the hook. I don’t buy it. He’s the creator of the universe, for heaven’s sake, and we get cancer, concentration camps – and Simon Cowell? If I were God, I promise you, I’d have made a better job of it. Wouldn’t you? What would you call the head of a construction company called Cosmos PLC, whose card says “Welcome to My World” – this world? You’d call him an idiot, that’s what you’d call him. Imagine God as a Project Manager on The Apprentice: Sir Alan Sugar points his menacing digit: “You’re fired!”

Okay, granted, God comes to fix the broken world. But how does he do it? To answer that question I would have to go on to talk about Good Friday and the crucifixion, and people will say, hey, it’s Christmas, we’re celebrating a birth, not commemorating a death, give the kids a break, give the cross a rest. Sorry, but that’s just what we can’t do. As Martin Luther saw with crystal clarity, the crib and the cross are cut from the same wood. Hence all the foreboding in Luke’s Christmas stories. Hence the shadow that falls over Matthew’s Nativity events. And the “we have seen his glory” in the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:14) – the “glory” of Jesus, for John, is, above all, the glory of – (oops) the cross! Good Friday for all three evangelists is written into Christmas Day. “Hark! The herald-angels sing” is the overture for the Passion. Mark is on the ball: in his gospel he omits the birth of Jesus altogether and pretty much cuts to the chase down the Via Dolorosa.

So here, in sum, is God’s plan for a broken world: God sends his Son, born of Mary, to fix it, and, missed by Herod, crucified by Pontius Pilate, we fix him. Love: can’t live without it, but can’t live with it either – and when we meet Love, we murder him. And to the naked eye, the world rolls on pretty much as the same old same old, as the venal reign, the greedy prosper, and the weak get shafted. And we think: Where was Plan B? No, this is not the way we would do things if we were God. God doesn’t do multi-tasking. God is a loser and failure. God is an idiot.

So how do I conclude? As ever, with the seraph, like this: “I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all people. This very day in David’s town your Saviour is born – Christ the Lord!” The movers and shakers – they’re over-rated. I’ll stick with the Idiot, love the Idiot, and trust the Idiot, thanking God for making me – us – idiots too. Jesus said, “Blessed are the idiots!” Well, no, he didn’t – but he might have, because it’s true. So rejoice!

That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
(John Betjeman)

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Best albums of 2009

Here's my pick of the year's 20 best albums:

1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
2. jj, jj N°2
3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
4. Iron & Wine, Around the Well
5. M. Ward, Hold Time
6. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
7. Lisa Mitchell, Wonder
8. The Mountain Goats, Life of the World to Come
9. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
10. Girls, Album
11. Dan Deacon, Bromst
12. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
13. Florence and the Machine, Lungs
14. Fever Ray, Fever Ray
15. Antony & the Johnsons, The Crying Light
16. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
17. Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Twice Born Men
18. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches
19. Ben Harper, White Lies for Dark Times
20. YACHT, See Mystery Lights

Most theologically interesting albums: M. Ward, Hold Time; and The Mountain Goats, Life of the World to Come (in this latter album, each song is based on a Bible verse)
Best live album: Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom
Best covers album: Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart
Best debut album: jj, jj N°2
Best compilation: Dark Was the Night
Best children’s album: Butterflyfish, Ladybug
Most disappointing album: Bob Dylan, Together through Life

Best songs of 2009

Here's my pick of the 20 best songs of the year, with a limit of one song per artist (otherwise half the list would be Animal Collective…).

1. Animal Collective, “My Girls” (Just as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was the theme song of the 60s, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the theme song of the 90s, so “My Girls” could serve as the theme of the noughties: "I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls...")
2. jj, “Things Will Never Be the Same Again”
3. The Mountain Goats, “Psalm 40:2”
4. Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks”
5. Girls, “Lust for Life”
6. The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”
7. Iron & Wine, “Kingdom of the Animals”
8. Lisa Mitchell, “Valium”
9. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over”
10. Fever Ray, “If I Had a Heart”
11. My Chemical Romance, “Desolation Row”
12. Bob Dylan, “Must Be Santa”
13. Dan Deacon, “Snookered”
14. M. Ward, “Shangri-La”
15. The Antlers, “Kettering”
16. Sweet Billy Pilgrim, “Kalypso”
17. The Flaming Lips, “Silver Trembling Hands”
18. The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You”
19. Mewithoutyou, “Allah, Allah, Allah”
20. YACHT, “Psychic City”

Monday 21 December 2009

Best theology books of 2009

Over the next week I’ll post some roundups of the year’s highlights. Here’s my selection of the best (mainly theological) books of 2009:

Thursday 17 December 2009

Theology essay competition and PhD stipends

It's not always easy to make an honest living from theology. So here are two notable opportunities for young theologians in the coming year:

Essay competition in honour of Polkinghorne

In 2010 the International Society for Science and Religion will be celebrating the 80th birthday of its founding President, John Polkinghorne. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, the ISSR is offering three substantial prizes to students or younger academics (not yet in a tenured post) for an essay on a major theme of Polkinghorne’s work (e.g. divine action, chaos theory, eschatology, natural theology, information, epistemology, etc). The prizes are very lucrative:

1st prize: £10,000
2nd prize: £5,000
3rd prize: £2,000

For further details, see the ISSR website.

Two PhD stipends in theology, University of Agder

LeRon Shults also announces that his university in Norway will be providing two new PhD stipends for theology students. Recipients of the stipend will receive a salary of about US$52,000 per year over three years, as well as travel funds, etc. LeRon has more details at his blog.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Daniel Pekarske, Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Essays

Karl Rahner was one of modern theology's most prolific and accomplished essayists. He was a consummate master of the genre, using essays to develop unsystematic sketches, suggestive hints, paths for future exploration. His great essay collection, Theological Investigations, spans 23 volumes and covers innumerable theological topics.

Unfortunately, the arrangement of these essays is often more or less arbitrary, making it difficult to track down Rahner's writing on a particular theme. So I've often made use of Daniel Pekarske's marvellous 659-page reference work, Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations 1-23 (Marquette University Press 2002) – a true labour of love, in which Pekarske provides a concise, informative overview of each essay, together with a detailed index.

So I was delighted to see that Pekarske has now released the sequel: Abstracts of Karl Rahner's Unserialized Essays (Marquette University Press 2009), 565 pp. In this volume, Pekarske provides abstracts of numerous essays that didn't make it into the Theological Investigations. As you'd expect, the essays here represent the extraordinary breadth of Rahner's interests – there are essays on Marxism and the economy, Concilium and renewal, prayer and silence, freedom and hominisation. As in the previous volume, Pekarske provides a very brief abstract of each essay, followed by a list of main keywords, then a list of subsidiary topics (these are often the most interesting bits), and finally a more detailed precis of the essay's argument.

Students of modern theology are indebted to Pekarske for his selfless and painstaking labours. With these unique reference works, the vast library of Rahner's essays becomes less daunting and much more accessible.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Richard Swinburne proves the resurrection

A conversation yesterday reminded me of Richard Swinburne's 2003 book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Using Bayesian probability and lashings of highfalutin mathematical jargon, Swinburne argues that "it [is] very probable indeed that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ who rose from the dead" (p. 214). His mathematical apologetics for the resurrection boils down to the following argument:

  1. The probably of God's existence is one in two (since God either exists or doesn't exist).
  2. The probability that God became incarnate is also one in two (since it either happened or it didn't).
  3. The evidence for God's existence is an argument for the resurrection.
  4. The chance of Christ's resurrection not being reported by the gospels has a probability of one in 10.
  5. Considering all these factors together, there is a one in 1,000 chance that the resurrection is not true.
It's almost impossible to parody this argument (since in order to parody it, you would have to imagine something sillier – a daunting task!). But let me try:

The probably that the moon is made of cheese is one in two (since it is either made of cheese or it isn't); the probability that this cheese is camembert is also one in two (since it's either camembert or it isn't); and so on...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Reggae as ethics: Rastafari theology from Garvey to Marley

I've been on a Bob Marley kick lately, so this book caught my eye: Noel Leo Erskine, From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida 2005). It's a fascinating and colourful exploration of the history and theology of the Rastas. In Erskine's analysis, the whole Rastafarian theology boils down to this: "God is an African" (p. 158) – so that "the central question the Rastas pose for us is where we stand in relation to Africa" (p. 5).

Erskine is himself a Jamaican-born theologian; he grew up in the village where Rastafari originated, and he later pastored a Baptist church in Jamaica. In the 1960s, he developed a close personal connection with a Rastafarian community. They discussed their views with him and allowed him to participate in their "reasonings" (informal theological discussions, accompanied by cannabis smoking) – so this book is written out of rich experience and a deep personal sympathy with the Rastafarian movement.

The Rastas see a direct relation between the Old Testament narratives and the history of the Jamaican people. "The Bible was written by black people about black people" (p. 67). Black Jamaicans are the true Israelites; "the exodus will be a return to Ethiopia, the Promised Land" (p. 38).

At the heart of this exodus-theology is the concept of Babylon. Babylon is the ultimate evil. It is that enslaving, anti-God system – the world-system that produces colonialism, capitalism, social oppression, and all manner of injustice. "Babylon" is no mere metaphor: it is experienced as a daily reality, bearing down on the Jamaican people. For the Rastas, its clearest personification is in the police: the police "were the living proof that Babylon was alive, active and waiting for any opportunity" to oppress (p. 74). Rastas also tend to avoid the church on account of its complicity with Babylon: "one steps out of the church into the state and out of the state into the church without knowing the difference" (p. 85).

This understanding of Babylon also helps to make sense of the theological significance of ganja (cannabis) smoking among Rastas. Smoking frees the mind from the "trickery" of Babylon, peeling back the veil to expose the sinister guile of the Babylonian world-system. As one Rasta puts it: "Before I start to smoke herb, the world was just good and pleasant to me.... But from I start to herb now, I start to read between the lines. Is like wool was removed from before my eyes.... The government knows from a man start smoke herb he be aware of some things. That is when he start come off the brainwash, when he start to smoke the herb. That's why them is against the herb so much" (p. 99).

Similarly, wearing dreadlocks – the single most important and dramatic identity-marker of the Rastas – signifies a rejection of the Babylonian system, a refusal to accede to the demands of Babylon. For the Rastas (p. 108), "not those who grow their hair long but those who trim it off are required to explain their actions"! In the same way, their commitment to vegetarianism and organic living finds its theological basis in this rejection of Babylon, the refusal to be assimilated into the world's oppressive system.

The power of Babylon is not, however, resisted by any Rastafarian ethic. Rather, the Rastas' whole emphasis is on escape from Babylon, sheer exodus. In the mean time, they direct "invective against the forces of oppression" (p. 81). "Babylon is evil, and the task of the Rasta is not to attempt to transform Babylon but to flee Babylon for Ethiopia" (p. 39). Indeed, for the Rastas, ethics is strictly unnecessary – they have reggae music instead!

Erskine is gently critical of the Rastas on this score, since they seem to have missed the opportunity of developing their own liberative praxis. They are stuck with "an imbalance between word and activity" (p. 43), so that they fail to seek widespread social transformation. From the perspective of liberation theology, I suppose this is a fair critique – but it fails to take seriously enough the more profound lesson of the Rastas (which is also a lesson of the Old Testament), namely, that language itself is already "action". Language is work, praxis, liberation. There is no transformation more radical than a transformation of discourse. For the people of Israel, God's very being is revealed as a liberating event of language – the divine Word-event.

Erskine rightly perceives the significance of the Rastas' linguistic innovation, their "dread talk". He observes: "With the creation of their own language, Rastas have not only protested against the education offered them through the schools ... but also have seized the power of definition" (p. 167). If we follow through on this insight, we might also ask whether Rastafari – with its tremendous attentiveness to the work of discourse – poses some critical questions to liberation theology, and indeed to any theology that allows for an easy division between the categories of theoria and praxis.

If speech is a fundamental mode of human action, then – surprisingly – it makes a good deal of sense for the Rastas to cultivate reggae in place of ethics. The more seriously we appreciate the Rastas' preoccupation with language, the more we might wonder if their project is even more ambitious than any liberation theology: they are turning the world upside down, one syllable at a time. As Erskine very aptly notes: "It may seem simplistic for Rastas to believe that the simple act of singing will threaten the system of Babylon sufficiently to effect transformation, but they observe that it was simply walking around the walls of Jericho and chanting that brought the wall down" (p. 175). It's in the song itself that Jah is alive, active, and on the move.

Theology of money

The AUFS crew have commenced their next book event, this time focusing on Philip Goodchild's Theology of Money. Here are the posts so far:

1. Power
2. The end of modernity
3. Ecology of money
4. Politics of money
5. Theology of money

Friday 4 December 2009

Sydney symposium with Sarah Coakley

On 12-13 July 2010, I'll be holding a symposium here in Sydney entitled "Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology". The event will open with a public lecture by Sarah Coakley, followed by two days of papers and intensive discussion. Coakley is one of the most exciting and creative figures in contemporary theology, and this will be a time of serious discussion about the future of systematic theology, using her work as a resource and stimulus.

I'll soon be creating a webpage for the event. But in the meantime, please feel free to contact me if you're interested in participating. I'm especially keen to gather papers that engage theologically with different aspects of Coakley's work (e.g. patristics, contemplative prayer, feminism, gender, desire, Trinity, and so forth).

If you're interested in learning more about Coakley's theological project, you should check out the extended interview in Rupert Shortt's book, God's Advocates (you can read the whole chapter on Google Books).

Thursday 3 December 2009

Theology FAIL: Christians enjoy killing

OK, the world is filled with bad theology. But you'll seldom come across anything as bad as this – in a 2005 essay entitled "Onward Christian Soldiers", Gene Edward Veith asks the question: "Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?"

He replies that war is "fun" since we have a "primal love of war". There is "a pleasure in battle", an "excitement, exhilaration, and a fierce joy that go along with combat". We should "appreciate our troops' facility in fulfilling their purpose, namely, killing the enemy." Christians with a military vocation should thus "go forward with joy"; quoting Luther, Veith counsels Christian soldiers to "smite [their enemies] with a confident and untroubled spirit." And so his remarkable theological conclusion: "As in other vocations, so in the military, there is nothing wrong with enjoying one's work."

A friend came by my office today and read me this passage aloud. I burst out laughing, thinking for a moment that it was a parody. But alas, I was mistaken. Which just goes to show that the test of Very Bad Theology is whether it's beyond parody.

Sunday 29 November 2009

"Be very afraid?" An advent sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Do you like horror films? I do. Good ones I mean. (Angie doesn’t even like the good ones, so I have to watch them when she’s out or gone to bed. Then I turn the lights off and watch in the dark.) The first horror film I ever saw in the cinema was The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as the mad doctor and Christopher Lee as “the Creature”. The film was made in 1957, so I must have been about ten when I saw it. I’ll never forget the moment when the monster tore the bandage off his face, revealing his hideous features. That night my mother let me keep the light on and the door open in my bedroom. Still, I didn’t sleep a wink; I stayed up until sunrise leafing through a pile of comics and magazines. Even National Geographic couldn’t send me off.

A year or so later I saw another great horror film, The Fly (1958), starring Vincent Price. And then, almost twenty years on (1986), the remake, starring Jeff Goldblum, who plays a brilliant but eccentric scientist named Seth Brundle who is experimenting with teleportation. Naturally the experiments begin to go wrong, and before long Brundle starts turning into the eponymous insect. When he pleads with one of the characters not to be afraid, the reporter working on the teleportation story, Veronica Quaife, played by the gorgeous Geena Davies, delivers what has now become a classic line transcending cinema (I often hear it from Angie!): “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The phrase is always used humorously; in fact, however, it well and seriously describes the contemporary cultural mood. Constantly we are told by the movers and shakers to be afraid, to be very afraid. In the eighties, when The Fly was made, the Cold War hadn’t yet thawed and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was the thing to very afraid of. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the HIV virus and AIDS rushed into to fill the fear vacuum. As the millennium approached, behold, the apocalyptic nutters and doomsayers had a phobic field day. And then 9/11, and ever since, ebbing and flowing, the threat of a terrorist attack, from bombs to bio-chemicals.

But it’s tough to keep people terrified when the threat rarely materialises, so what next to keep us all afraid, very afraid? Have no fear (so to speak!), the pundits will always find something for us to fear in what has been dubbed our “culture of fear” (Frank Furedi). If you fly, DVT, deep vein thrombosis. If you have children, MMR immunization – or scarier still, “stranger danger”, the predatory paedophile lurking in the park, so keep the kids in the garden and lock the gates. If you live in a city, it’s the immigrants, stealing our jobs and houses, and if they’re Muslim, you’ve got a double danger – they might be making explosive devices in their basements.

And now, most recently, there’s been the panic over the illness – sorry, I mean the epidemic – no, check that, I mean pandemic – of swine flu. The term “at risk”, rare even in the mid-nineties, is now so commonplace in the media that it’s become a cliché. You could say that we are now afraid of not being afraid, of not being very afraid. In fact, in the US, “Be very afraid!” has become the shibboleth of the Republican Party.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things to be concerned about, very concerned about – global warming, in particular, which has huge implications for geopolitics: floods on the one hand and droughts on the other, major food shortages, massive population dislocations, and recently doctors have warned of a “global health catastrophe”. It is now essential that world governments take immediate and radical measures to reduce carbon emissions – the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit begins on December 7th. And it is a no-brainer that we should take reasonable safety precautions in our daily lives. Absolutely. But it’s a question of balance – and we have lost it.

The fact of the matter is that we are safer than we have ever been. And when fears are exaggerated, manipulated, and even manufactured – well, check this out. In 2003 the Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge University, Martin Rees, wrote a book about the threats facing humanity overt the next hundred years. I’ve read it: it’s called Our Final Century. Except that wasn’t the title Professor Rees submitted to the publisher. His working title was Our Final Century? – question mark. But that wasn’t sensationalist enough for Random House, so they turned the interrogative into a declarative. But even that wasn’t lurid enough for the American edition of the book, the title of which became – wait for it! – Our Final Hour – like sixty minutes and counting! I mean you couldn’t make it up. When fears threaten to turn paranoia into normality, when they threaten to undermine a basic sense of trust, which is absolutely essential to being psychologically healthy human beings, then it’s time to get a grip.

You want fear? Take a look at the ancient Middle East and the period of over a thousand years covered by the Bible. Read the stories. Floods, famines, and plagues; war, scorched earth, and exile: life, applying the memorable words of the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And you didn’t have to exaggerate, manipulate, or manufacture anxiety in the face of the ever-present threats to human well-being: they were in your face. As they are today (as we have just heard in painful detail from Aitemad Muhanna) for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

And yet what is the refrain that you hear again and again throughout the Bible? “Be afraid, be very afraid”? On the contrary! Without even a hint of denial of the daily struggle for survival, the Lord says to his people, “Do not be afraid.” In the very midst of big trouble, the Lord says, “Do not be anxious.” In the face of death itself, the Lord says, “Peace be with you.” On what grounds? Not because there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to make our stomachs sink and our knees knock. No, no whistling in the dark, not a bit of it. What then? “I am with you,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

It is that simple. Life is hard, but faith is that simple. “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Don’t be silly! The Lord is with me! The seas roar – the Lord is with me! The mountains tumble – the Lord is with me! The troops are breaching the city walls – the Lord is with me! The angel of death pounds at the door – the Lord is with me! Or: I’ve just been told I have cancer, my husband – it’s the Alzheimer’s – doesn’t recognise me anymore, we’ve missed our mortgage payments again – fill in the blank: at one time or another we’re all going to have a pack of troubles, and we’ll have two chances to get out of them – slim or none. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

Faith is fearless. Because faith trusts in God, the God Jesus discloses to us, whom he called Father, whom he invites us to call Father too. That is the gift and privilege of being a Christian. And no one and no thing can take that away from us. How can I be afraid when I am the child of the Father of Jesus?

Make no mistake: as our so-called “final” century advances, our culture of fear will get more and more fearful still. And elites with power to keep and money to make will exploit our fears ruthlessly and even religiously. For Christians there will be times of great testing – and temptation. Keep the faith and keep your heads. Stand firm and fast. Do not be afraid. Even when terrible things threaten and happen, be very unafraid. Don’t take cover, Jesus said, but “up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” (Luke 21:28, The Message). Know the Lord is near. Feel the Lord is here. God is with us. God will always be with us.

Friday 27 November 2009

Summer holiday fiction list

Now that the teaching year has ended here, I've begun my programme of self-rejuvenation through fiction. So far, my summer holiday reading list includes the following novels:

  • Patrick Süskind, Perfume (1985) [finished: probably the best novel I've read all year]
  • Richard Flanagan, The Unknown Terrorist (2006) [finished]
  • David Lodge, Changing Places (1975) [finished]
  • David Lodge, Small World (1984) [finished]
  • David Lodge, Nice Work (1988)
  • David Lodge, Therapy (1995)
  • David Lodge, Deaf Sentence (2008)
  • Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (2009)
  • David Storey, Radcliffe (1963)
  • William Golding, Rites of Passage (1980)
  • Graham Swift, Last Orders (1996)
And also a couple of memoirs:
  • Gillian Rose, Love's Work (1995)
  • Rachel Weiss, Me, Myself and Prague: An Unreliable Guide to Bohemia (2008)
Regrettably, I haven't read many new novels this year. I definitely hope to read Peter Carey's latest, Parrot and Olivier in America, as well as A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. Anyone got any other suggestions for good 2009 novels?

Monday 23 November 2009

Covenant precedes creation

Much of my own research and writing over the past year has focused on the Barthian theme of the priority of salvation over creation. God's act in Christ "precedes" the creation of the world, and is its foundation. Just this morning, I came across this nice passage:

The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation. Everything is created so that this story can exist – the encounter between God and his creature. In this sense, salvation history, the covenant, precedes creation. During the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea that the Torah would have preceded the creation of the material world. This material world seems to have been created solely to make room for the Torah, for this Word of God that creates the answer and becomes the history of love. The mystery of Christ already is mysteriously revealed here.... One can say that, while material creation is the condition for the history of salvation, the history of the covenant is the true cause of the cosmos.
No, that was not a quote from Karl Barth. It's Benedict XVI, speaking in a recent meditation on Psalm 118 – as cited in the immensely enjoyable new book by Scott W. Hahn, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Brazos Press 2009), p. 23.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Homeward, these shoes worn to paper: thin as the reason I left here so young

Friday 20 November 2009

Holy Spirit: readings and poems

As mentioned in an earlier post, this semester I taught an undergraduate course on the Holy Spirit. There were some requests to post my reading list – so here it is. I've listed each of the weekly topics, together with the set readings. Each class also included a brief reading/discussion of a poem – so I've also listed the poems here.

Assessment consisted of class participation (the weekly class included a tutorial discussion of one of the set readings); an essay on patristic pneumatology, an essay on contemporary/constructive pneumatology, and a series of brief written reflections on the set readings.

The required text for the subject was Eugene Rogers' wonderful new anthology, The Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Wiley-Blackwell 2009). I was very impressed by how much the students seemed to enjoy and appreciate this book (with one small exception: see Week 9 below) – I'll definitely use it again in future. All asterisked items on the reading list are from this anthology. I've also added a few notes on the overall shape of the course.

1. Knowing the Spirit

  • Robert Jenson*; Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit, 1-16
  • Poem: Veni Creator Spiritus (hymn)*
2. The Spirit in the NT
  • Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence, 860-83; Hans Urs von Balthasar*; Kärkkäinen, Pneumatology, ch. 2
  • Poem: John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.1-32
3. The Spirit and the body
  • Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit, 45-72; Alasdair Heron, The Holy Spirit, ch. 5; Staniloae*
  • Poem: Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur"
  • Note: These first three weeks were all focused on the Spirit's narrative identity in the NT. Luke-Acts was really the central text for these opening weeks, and we continued to return to Luke-Acts throughout the semester (and also to Romans 8). Next time around, I'll probably replace "The Spirit and the body" with a topic that refers more specifically to Luke-Acts; and I'll also replace some of these early readings with some specific exegetical readings on Luke's theology of the Spirit.
4. The Spirit and prayer
  • Sarah Coakley, "Why Three? Some Further Reflections on the Origins of the Doctrine of the Trinity"; Adrienne von Speyr*; Thomas Smail, The Giving Gift, ch. 9
  • Poem: R. S. Thomas, "Sea-watching"
5. The Spirit and worship
  • Kilian McDonnell, The Other Hand of God, ch. 3; Richard Norris*; Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit I, ch. 5
  • Poem: Rowan Williams, "Rublev"
6. The Spirit and scripture
  • Amy Plantinga Pauw, "The Holy Spirit and Scripture" (in Jensen, ed., The Lord and Giver of Life); Stephen Fowl*
  • Poems: George Herbert, "The H. Scriptures"; R. S. Thomas, "Paul"
7. The Spirit and freedom
  • Rowan Williams*; Joerg Rieger, "Resistance Spirit: The Holy Spirit and Empire" (in Jensen, ed., The Lord and Giver of Life)
  • Poem: Keith Green, "Rushing Wind" (song)
  • Note: I particularly enjoyed the class discussion of this Rowan Williams essay. Williams comes close to arguing that the Spirit is itself the abolition of pneumatology – a challenging thought for a class on pneumatology! In some ways, this tension between the Spirit and pneumatology – or between the Spirit-as-reality and talk-about-the-Spirit – was central to the course. (The texts we read by Coakley also explore this tension in various ways.)
8. The Spirit and desire
  • Sarah Coakley*, "Living into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer and Sexuality"; Karl Barth, CD II/1, 650-51; Augustine (selections from Confessions and Homilies on I John)
  • Poem: John Donne, "Holy Sonnet XIV"
9. The Spirit and the triune God
  • Augustine, selection from Homilies on I John*; Thomas Smail, The Giving Gift, ch. 6
  • Poem: George Herbert, "Grace"
  • Note: This Augustine selection was my only disappointment with the Rogers reader. Unfortunately, Rogers used the old NPNF translation, and the students were completely put off by the clumsy 19th-century syntax. This was a real shame, since I'd used other selections from the lovely new translation of Augustine's Homilies on I John, and the students found this very accessible. Maybe Rogers could update the translation in his next edition...?
10. The Spirit as God’s mission
  • Gregory, On Pentecost*; Kirsteen Kim, The Holy Spirit in the World, 41-66
  • Poem: Sufjan Stevens, "Seven Swans" (song)
11. The gifts of the Spirit
  • Cyril*; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, ch. 9; Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, 292-301; Gordon Fee, God's Empowering Presence, 886-95
  • Poem: George Hebert, "Whitsunday"
  • Note: This class unexpectedly turned into a discussion of "discerning the Spirit", especially with reference to the Spirit's work in other religions. It was probably the best discussion of the whole course, so next time around I'll add "Discerning the Spirit" as one of the main topics, and I'll probably combine "gifts of the Spirit" and "charismatic experience" as a single topic.
12. The Spirit and charismatic experience
  • Sarah Coakley* (Church of England Doctrine Commission), "Charismatic Experience"; Frank Macchia, "The Spirit and the Power: Spirit Baptism in Pentecostal and Ecumenical Perspective"; Augustine, Homilies on I John, 6.8-13
  • Poem: John Michael Talbot, "One Dark Night" (song; words by St John of the Cross)
13. The Spirit and Christian hope
  • Jürgen Moltmann*; Karl Barth, "Life in Hope", in CD IV/3; Denis Edwards, "Ecology and the Holy Spirit" (in Preece and Pickard, ed., Starting with the Spirit)
  • Poem: Kevin Hart, "The Last Day"
Poem for concluding reflection: Kevin Hart, "Prayer"

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Scammer ping pong: how to play with an email scammer

So I decided to sell my Ford Laser, and I listed it on a used car website. I was promptly contacted by a Nigerian scammer who called himself Nicholas Smart ( I was feeling bored at the time, so I decided to have a bit of fun with him. Below is a sample of our email exchange. I call this game Scammer Ping Pong: hours of fun for the whole family!

Hi there, i will like to make an offer $5,900 for this, i will be happy if you accept my offer, payments will be through paypal and i will arrange the pick up well.


Dear Nicholas,

Thanks for your interest in the car. If you’d like to arrange a time to come and see it, you can call me on my mobile number.

Hi thanks for mailing back,i am an oceanographer, i am at sea right now,i am buying this for my son as a surprise gift and I am glad you accepted my offer.I can only pay through paypal at the moment as i dont have access to my bank account online(i dont have internet banking with it),but i have it attached to my paypal account, and this is why i insisted on using paypal to pay,all i will need is your paypal email address to make the payments,and if you dont have a paypal account yet,its pretty easy to set one up at,i will be expecting your email.I have a pick up agent that will come for the pick up after payments has been sorted.


Hi Nicholas,

OK, thanks for letting me know. Since you won’t get to see the car before purchasing it, I want to be completely honest with you: the photos I listed were taken a few years ago. Since then, the car has been in a few accidents. But it still runs fine.

Ok, its no problem if it runs fine. thanks for letting me know. Just send your paypal email asap so that i can make the payment together.


Thanks, Nicholas. I must admit, the car was also involved in a minor fire recently. So the colour is no longer white. It’s more of a dark grey. But it still looks great. Two of the tyres were also destroyed in the fire, so it will need a couple of new tyres. And part of the roof was burned away, so the seats can get a bit damp when it rains. But the car runs perfectly. Anyway, you seem like a nice guy. So for you, I’d be happy to drop the price down to $5,800. Would you like me to send some more recent photos of the car?

Thanks alot for that. Its just what i am looking for.....There is know problem, i will get that fix for my son.....There is no need of sending me any pics again when you have already explain the condition for me. Just get back to me with your paypal so that i can just make the payment. Looking forward to read from you soon.
Great, thanks Nicholas! I should also just check with you: I hope your son is not allergic to seafood? My wife and I own a seafood shop, and we use the car to transport seafood from the markets. Usually we fill the backseat with fish, crabs, lobsters and squid. We do this a few times each week, so there is a bit of a fishy smell. Some people find the smell unpleasant — but my wife and I don’t even notice it. As long as your son isn’t allergic to seafood, I doubt he’ll even notice the smell once he has been using the car for a while. (Obviously there are also some seafood stains on the backseat. And the interior of the boot is a bit oily, since we usually keep the oysters back there. But the front of the car is nice and clean, as good as new. I’ve removed all the old prawn heads from the glove compartment, so that’s also nice and clean.)

So please could you confirm that your son has no seafood allergies? I feel responsible to tell you about this, since you seem like a very trusting person. I’d hate for your son to have an allergic reaction to the car.

Ok seafood is no problem. It will be perfect for my son..... Thanks alot for telling me. Get back to me with your paypal email so that i can make the payment.
Dear Nicholas,

We’re leaving for vacation tomorrow, so we’d still love to sell you the car if you’re able to send payment today. Someone else came and looked at the car today. He was very rude when he saw that the engine was missing, and he offered me $75 for the car. I think this was a very unfair price, especially since the car has great sentimental value to my wife and me. But I still feel that I may have been a bit unfair to you. So if you’d still like to buy the car for your son, I will lower the price to $5,500. Would you like to go ahead with the sale?

OK, i will be happy with $5500, its a good price. Get back to me asap with your paypal email and i will make the payment.

As our emails continued to hurtle back and forth, I also tried to get him to send me a photo of himself, and I tried to scam him out of $2. But alas, this was unsuccessful – better luck next time!

Thursday 12 November 2009

Happy birthday, Edward Schillebeeckx

A reader informed me that today is the 95th birthday of the great Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. So in his honour, I'm re-posting a short piece from a couple of years ago:

Among modern Catholic theologians, there’s no one I like better than Edward Schillebeeckx. I pay visits to Rahner and Balthasar and Ratzinger, but I come home to Schillebeeckx.

Why do I love Schillebeeckx? There are many reasons. His whole theology is worked out amidst a momentous wrestling with the biblical texts. He has an extraordinary way of perceiving exactly what Christian faith and practice really mean, what they really demand. In contrast both to unthinking conservatisms and sentimental progressivisms, he forged a profound and unflinching christological revision, issuing in a rigorous and tough-minded theology of liberation.

Besides that, he also has the most delightfully cumbersome name in the whole history of theology – his full name is Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx (and, as a novice of the Dominican Order, he added Henricus as an additional name). No one with fewer names could have written so many – or such gigantic – books.

I leave you with this quote from the Birthday Boy himself:

“The crucified but risen Jesus appears in the believing, assembled community of the church. That this sense of the risen, living Jesus has faded in many [churches] can be basically blamed on the fact that our churches are insufficiently ‘communities’ of God…. Where the church of Jesus Christ lives, and lives a liberating life in the footsteps of Jesus, the resurrection faith undergoes no crisis. On the other hand, it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a God who minimizes human beings, holds them under and oppresses them, with a view to a better world to come.”

—Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1985), p. 34.

Monday 9 November 2009

Mirabile dictu! (Latin for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!")

Here's a little song about Martin Luther, from the lectionary blog Rumors. Sung to the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious":

Mirabile dictu!

When I was just ein junger Mann I studied canon law;
While Erfurt was a challenge, it was just to please my Pa.
Then came the storm, the lightning struck, I called upon Saint Anne,
I shaved my head, I took my vows, an Augustinian! Oh...

Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation
Speak your mind against them and face excommunication!
Nail your theses to the door, let's start a Reformation!
Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation!

When Tetzel came near Wittenberg, St Peter's profits soared,
I wrote a little notice for the All Saints' Bull'tin board:
"You cannot purchase merits, for we're justified by grace!
Here's 95 more reasons, Brother Tetzel, in your face!" Oh...


They loved my tracts, adored my wit, all were exempleror;
The Pope, however, hauled me up before the Emperor.
"Are these your books? Do you recant?" King Charles did demand,
"I will not change my Diet, Sir, God help me here I stand!" Oh...


Duke Frederick took the Wise approach, responding to my words,
By knighting "George" as hostage in the Kingdom of the Birds.
Use Brother Martin's model if the languages you seek,
Stay locked inside a castle with your Hebrew and your Greek! Oh...


Let's raise our steins and Concord Books while gathered in this place,
And spread the word that 'catholic' is spelled with lower case;
The Word remains unfettered when the Spirit gets his chance,
So come on, Katy, drop your lute, and join us in our dance! Oh...

Friday 6 November 2009

Ask Hauerwas a question

Our friend Dan Morehead will soon be interviewing Stanley Hauerwas for a feature in Wunderkammer Magazine. So Dan has invited us to have some input into the interview. What question would you ask Hauerwas? What would you like him to discuss in the interview?

I think my wife's a Calvinist

Today I bring you three fantastic theologico-musical videos:

I Think My Wife's a Calvinist

Calvin Girl

"It's All About Me" – new worship album

Thursday 5 November 2009

Once more with J. Louis Martyn: divine action and the church

OK, since the last post generated so much enthusiasm about Bultmann and my beige jacket, I thought I'd give you another excerpt from my AAR paper, which is now titled "Apocalyptic Gospel: J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians Commentary as a Challenge to Contemporary Theology". (Seriously though, I appreciated the comments on Bultmann, and I revised that section accordingly. But I'm keeping the jacket.) This excerpt is from the paper's conclusion:

Where so much contemporary theology seems hesitant to invoke the category of divine action – or to replace divine action with the church’s own drama of virtue and moral agency – Martyn’s work remains unfashionably committed to the absolute distinction between God’s act in Christ and all other forms of religious or irreligious agency. Here, the fundamental antinomy is not between religion and lack of religion, or between church and world, or even between human works and a human exercise of faith. Instead, it is ‘the cosmic antinomy between religion and apocalypse’. Thus in his essay on Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Martyn underscores O’Connor’s ‘vision of [the] burning away of virtues and thus a vision of tax collectors and prostitutes preceding you into the Kingdom of the God who rectifies the ungodly’. It is precisely the dissolution of virtue – the dissolution of religion – that the gospel announces, since even virtue itself stands on the wrong side of the apocalyptic antinomy between the way of God and all human ways.

If we take this seriously, the result ought to be a rather humbler, more circumscribed ecclesiology. The church cannot become a new polis, as Nate Kerr has also argued. It cannot become a secure alternative order over against the world. It cannot, Martyn says, ‘stand aloof as a new “us”.’ God’s apocalypse in Christ has already dissolved every distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. God’s power is manifest not in the virtue or cohesiveness of the church, but ‘in the foolishness of a Christ-centred gospel that brings its proclaimers into solidarity with those who are weak and stumbling’.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Apocalyptic gospel: J. Louis Martyn on Galatians

Here's a short excerpt from my aforementioned AAR paper, entitled "Apocalyptic Gospel: J. Louis Martyn's Galatians Commentary as a Critique of Contemporary Theology". The paper focuses on Martyn's commentary on Galatians, and it has three sections: I. The Gospel against Religion; II. Gospel as God's Apocalypse; III. The Truth of the Gospel. This excerpt comes from section II:

Martyn’s Galatians commentary is thus best understood as a sort of speech-act reading of Paul: he emphasises not so much the content of the letter as the performative action of Paul’s address. Paul is doing something to the Galatians; he is proclaiming the gospel, and thus directly situating his Galatian hearers in the unsettling, liberating presence of God. In Paul’s announcement, ‘God himself steps on the scene, addressing the hearers directly’. Paul’s gospel ‘is the active power of God, because in it God himself comes on the scene, speaking his own word-event’. For this reason, Paul underscores the fact that his gospel did not come through any line of tradition; it came to him directly from God, as God’s own self-utterance, ‘the good event that God is causing to happen now’. In the same vein, Martyn suggests that Paul’s use of the word ‘amen!’ – both in the opening and close of the letter – is an attempt ‘to rob the Galatians of the lethal luxury of considering themselves observers.’ They stand before God, and are confronted not merely by Paul’s word, but by the very speech of God.

Martyn’s indebtedness to the Bultmannian tradition is often overlooked. But in this connection the deep Bultmannian undercurrent of his thought becomes evident. For Bultmann, as also for Käsemann (to whom the Galatians commentary is dedicated), Christ is risen into the proclaimed gospel; the risen life of Christ confronts the community only in the word-event. ‘The exalted Christ is present only in Christian proclamation’, as Käsemann says. Here, the content of the proclamation (the ‘what’) is less important than its sheer eventfulness (the ‘that’). The gospel is God’s own liberating act; it is not a subsequent report about the saving event, but it is part of the very fabric of that event. The gospel, we might say, belongs to the divine economy. The proclamation of Christ is part of Christ’s own identity. To put it in Barthian terms, the risen Christ is not only Lord, he is also the living contemporaneous witness to his own lordship.

All this has profound implications for the way Martyn understands the relation between present proclamation and God's apocalypse in Christ. Just as Bultmann refuses any disjunction between Christ’s past historicity (Historie) and present eventfulness (Geschichte), so Martyn insists that Paul has no interest in an ‘objective’ report about a Christ-event of the past. Nor does Paul try to bring out the present ‘relevance’ or ‘significance’ of that past event. The gospel is betrayed if one speaks about it ‘solely in terms of the once-upon-a-time’. Instead, Paul’s theme is ‘the activity of God then and now’; his one question is: ‘What was God doing in Jerusalem that is revealing as to what God is doing now in Galatia?’ Again, the contemporaneity of God’s action is not a mere application of an event that belongs essentially to the past. God is unceasingly active through the apocalypse of the gospel announcement: ‘for Paul, the history of the gospel is what it is because the God who acted in it is the God who is now acting in it’. The saving event happens in the word of the gospel. The proclamation of Christ’s ‘there and then’ is itself the mode of Christ’s redemptive presence ‘here and now’.

As Martyn also puts it in his book on History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, the incarnation of the Word is not an event ‘which transpired only in the past’: the drama of this event unfolds on two levels simultaneously, the level of the unique past and the contemporary level. More than that, Martyn insists that the occurrence of this event on both levels ‘is, to a large extent, the good news itself.’ Thus in his work on both Paul and John, Martyn foregrounds the church’s continuing gospel proclamation as part of the very fabric of the salvation-event, part of Christ’s own identity as the risen one.

NB: Although I won't be at AAR in person, someone sent me this photo from a recent paper I gave in Canberra. So now you've read the text and you've seen me presenting it: my work here is done.

Monday 2 November 2009

I'm not able, I'm just Cain

A big round-up of links this week...


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