Tuesday 31 March 2009

Church and business: retail therapy

Here’s a letter that Kim Fabricius recently published in the British church magazine Reform:

I have no problem with the church in the retail park (“Retail Therapy”, Reform March); what I do have a problem with is the retail park in the church in the retail park.

Mega-malls are the cathedrals of consumerism in which bending the knee to global capitalism takes the form of conspicuous and relentless shopping. What concerns me is that the ecumenical chaplaincy at Middlebrook Retail Park, Bolton might simply be the court prophet that blesses such pagan subjection to distorted desire and spiritual restlessness.

I am concerned, for example, that the “calm space where worries can be talked through” sounds suspiciously like what Philip Rieff calls reducing the gospel to “rubber nipple” therapy in the burgeoning “anxiety market”.

I am concerned that so-called audacious conversations with the punter, the staff and the boss may not include the pathologies of shopping and debt, the sin of corporate avariciousness, the smoke and mirrors of marketing and branding, the ethics of fishing-the-bottom (the north shops, the south drops), the economic suicide of protectionism, and so on. Now that would be audacious.

And I am concerned, at source, about the agreement between church and management that presumably sets parameters for the project: is the chaplain free to evangelise, spearhead fair trade campaigns, fight for workers’ rights, etc – or is the gospel in chains?

I hope I’ve got it wrong, and that “retail chaplaincy” has nothing to do with greasing the squeaking wheel of the market economy by suppressing hard theological questions and colluding in the privatisation of faith. (As a university chaplain I myself have, of course, exercised a pastoral/counselling ministry; but I have also felt compelled openly to criticise university management for its obsession with a business model of learning, as well as for its contemptible investments in the arms trade.)

It is suggestive, I think, that when Paul ventured into the market place in Ephesus (Acts 19:21ff.), he caused such a “serious disturbance” (v. 23) over the trade in silver that the crowd rioted and tried to lynch two of the apostle’s companions.

Monday 30 March 2009

Living gently in a violent world: Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier on the witness of L'Arche

Speaking of L’Arche, IVP recently launched a new series, Resources for Reconciliation. The first volume discusses justice and reconciliation. The second volume in the series is a dialogue between Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (IVP 2008). Their dialogue explores the prophetic witness of L’Arche to the church and to society. “In a world determined to cure those who cannot be cured, Christians should refuse to do anything other than be with those Jesus taught us to be loved by – that is, those we ‘help’ by simply being present” (p. 56).

Vanier writes: “Today in France they are saying that within a few years there will be no more children with Down syndrome because they will all have been aborted…. The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).

And Hauerwas writes: “Long story short: we don’t get to make our lives up. We get to receive our lives as gifts. The story that says we should have no story except the story we chose … is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t get to make up our lives because we’re creatures…. Christian discipleship is about learning to receive our lives as gifts without regret” (p. 93).

And in a concluding reflection, John Swinton observes: “L’Arche reminds us that time is not simply a commodity to be wasted, spent, saved or used but is rather a gift given…. The people living in L’Arche have recognized that time is a gift…. L’Arche lays down a marker in the fabric of time, a marker reminding us that in Jesus, time has been redeemed for the practices of peace” (pp. 104-5).

Sunday 29 March 2009

'Can't you see my Church is in ruins?' The witness of L'Arche and the Barnabas Community

A post by Scott Stephens

The most venerated of all the saints of the holy Catholic Church is Francis from the Italian village of Assisi. The sheer force of his Christ-like devotion has inspired millions of Christians to ‘go and do likewise’. Equally, his transparent humility has rattled Church structures at their very foundations. Francis, more than any other single figure in the history of the Church, is a saint for all times, and a challenge for each generation.

But there is conundrum that goes to the heart of Francis’ identity. At what point did Francesco Bernadone, the lecherous and lazy son of a wealthy cloth merchant, turn his back on that life and become ‘Saint Francis’? What was his ‘Damascus Road’? Was it when the young Francis, still despairing after his dreams of chivalry evaporated, knelt before a crucifix amid the ruins of the Church of St. Damian, and a voice said to him, ‘Francesco, do you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me!’ Francis obviously took these words seriously—he went and sold most of his father’s stock of fine fabrics and used the proceeds to rebuild the aging shrine.

Or was it when Francis abandoned the familiarity of human society and made his home in a leper commune? According to Francis himself, this event was decisive. He reflects in his Testament, written shortly before his death: ‘for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me even to look upon the leprous. But the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards, I delayed a little and then left the world.’

We tend to forget the place lepers occupied in the early Middle Ages. In the 12th century, those with ‘leprosy’—a designation that covered a range of deformities and communicable diseases—were restricted to decrepit communes outside city walls. By decree of the Church, they had to cover themselves entirely to prevent contact with others; they had to use clappers to warn whenever people came near; they were banned from speaking to children; they were even consigned to their own churches, their own sacraments, their own cemeteries.

Doesn’t this cast the command that Francis heard in St. Damian’s in a whole new light? The Church which had fallen into ruins was not the dilapidated, crumbling shrine, as Francis believed, but rather the very Church that had forsaken its Lord by segregating and abandoning the leprous. Thus Francis’ act of rebuilding the Church wasn’t his repair of St. Damian’s, but rather his establishment of a community with the lepers themselves.

So who today are ‘the lepers’, into whose company the Church should follow its Lord? As Michel Foucault chronicled in History of Madness, the sad story of the Church’s treatment of the leprous took a truly horrific turn in the 15th century. The Church liquidated the leper communes, and used those now vacant hovels to house the mentally disabled—out of sight and away from human society.

There are communities today who, like Francis, have set about rebuilding the Church. Such communities are nothing less than sacraments, testimonies of grace, which bear witness to a Church that similarly finds itself in ruins. The Barnabas Community in Durack, Queensland, was founded in 1995 as an act of obedience to Jesus, and in solidarity with L’Arche, the network of communal homes established by Jean Vanier in 1964.

Barnabas House is a suburban home in which residents with a disability are enveloped by a loving community of people who live and eat with them, who share life with them, who celebrate the beauty of God in them. As Vanier has often said, it is the presence of such communities in which the able and those with a disability live side-by-side, eating together and celebrating the holiness of one another, that comprises our best picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

The infectious joy and warmth of the Barnabas Community is not just in stark contrast to the sterility and institutionalized ennui to which people with a mental disability are subjected in Australian society. This community is also a living protest against the suppressed resentment that our society feels concerning the very existence of the mentally disabled. Stanley Hauerwas is surely correct when he claims that the mentally disabled embody the ethical limitation of our liberal humanism. ‘Our humanism entails we care for them once they are among us, once we are stuck with them; but the same humanism cannot help but think that, all things considered, it would be better if they did not exist.’

In our time, not only is the Barnabas Community an unforgettable protest against the institutionalized death and decrepitude of federally funded disability services; it is a powerful witness to a Church that has abandoned its Lord by placing its confidence in its buildings and in the idols of investment and in the immoral practice of usury—all the while outsourcing its care of the mentally disabled.

And so our Lord addresses us with the same summons that haunted St. Francis: ‘Do you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me!’

If you would like to find out more about the Barnabas Community, or how you and your church can support its communal life, you can contact Glenda Hall or Scott Stephens.

Friday 27 March 2009

Holy Spirit: what to read?

No, the title of this post is not a prayer, but a request for some input. Next semester I’ll be teaching a course on pneumatology, so I’ll be compiling a set of about 30 short texts (e.g. book chapters, essays) for students to read throughout the semester. So what are the indispensable texts on the Spirit? Which texts would you set? They don’t all have to be modern writers either – I’d prefer to have a good mix from different periods and traditions. (I’ll probably start with Romans and the Fourth Gospel, then move on to a couple of patristic writers, etc.)

I’ll be very grateful for your suggestions!

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow

Nobody knows who I am till the judgement morning

A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius

John, a former primary school head master, mentally and physically vigorous, died at the age of 72, within 18 months of being diagnosed with a form of dementia. He had nursed his wife Alice, now in a care home, for several years as she too succumbed to dementia. David, who gave the main eulogy, is their elder son. (The names have been changed here.)

A funeral is a time – perhaps the best time – to ask an important question – perhaps the most important question: Who am I? And perhaps at this funeral more than most, it’s a question that has quite poignant significance.

In the first act of King Lear, as the king’s two elder daughters take cruel advantage of their old father’s weakening state of mind, Lear asks, painfully, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” It’s a question that then haunts the unfolding plot as the king descends into the madness we would now call dementia. And the Fool’s answer rings true to all who have known and nursed the dementia sufferer: “Lear’s shadow.”

David has painted a detailed portrait of his dad before he had become a shadow of his old self. In Sketty we too knew John, if only in his so-called “retirement”, as a man who knew only one way to live – with energy and enthusiasm, greeting each day, like the children he used to teach, as a gift to unwrap and enjoy. Take an interest in other people, be an attentive listener and a good neighbour, keep your curiosity keen and your sense of humour humming – that was John. He said that retiring to Swansea was just the right move, living on the edge of the Gower, allowing Alice to reconnect with her West Walean roots. When his own Newport (stroke-Dragons) beat Alice’s Scarlets, he tried not to gloat – not that it was very often he had the chance!

Those who shared meals with John and Alice will attest that he liked a good table – and cellar! In fact, John himself occasionally used the kitchen as a laboratory – even if the experiments weren’t always successful. No Luddite, he had a go at the new technology – the PC, the digital camera, the iPod. He continued to caravan like a gypsy and travel abroad. Get him to sit still and he’d read an absorbing biography – and savour a fine whisky. He served on our church Social Committee, and emceed many a memorable chapel event with flair and wit – and who can forget his quizzes? For several years he coordinated our participation in Christian Aid Week. And he always pitched in at our annual autumn leaf-clearing, even providing a garden vacuum. And in most of these activities, there too, of course, was Alice. John kept his family and his friendships in good repair.

And then, so suddenly, so insidiously, so aggressively, the illness that has been called “the forgetting” (David Shenk). With Lear, John could finally say, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

But you know, in the deepest sense of this question, the answer, whether we are of sound or unsound mind and body, is: “No one.” No one can see into our soul, no one can read the grammar of our hearts, even if what we do on the outside, what (if you like) “it says on the tin”, usually gives a fair indication of the contents within – indeed often a fairer indication than our own self-judgements, so prone are we to self-deception. But even those who have rigorously explored their “inner life”, who have worked and prayed their way to a less obscure or fictitious, a more accurate sense of self – to self-knowledge (as we say) – nevertheless, who I am always remains just outside my field of vision.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The ultimate answer to that question is to be found in the title of an old African-American spiritual: “Oh, nobody knows who I am / Till the judgement morning.” Which is why the prospect of judgement is so awesome – because our Creator, from whom no secrets are hidden, will look into our hearts; but also, ultimately, why the prospect of judgement is so comforting – because our Creator sees us in the company of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, who is our peace. Who are we? God knows! Who are we? The question, rather, is “Whose are we?” And the answer is: we are God’s, in Christ. God made us – and God will re-make us. “Thus it is with the resurrection of the dead,” wrote St. Paul: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable… It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (I Cor. 15:42-43).

We are glad for the John we knew (as we say) in his prime. We are understandably agonised at the way John seemed to disappear down the black hole of dementia. But, as Christians, I trust we know that even as his sense – and our sense – of his self-coherence disintegrated with his failing memory, God remembered John and held him fast; trust too we know that it was love’s work that we then did the remembering for John; and, finally, in these ominous times when the so-called enlightened and progressive grow dismissive of imperfection and impatient with infirmity, I trust we know that John, even in his feebleness, had a dignity and sanctity waiting to be fully revealed. And now, in faith, behold! – John in glory, (we may imagine) mentoring children, shooting par, enjoying angelic choirs, and exploring the limitless geography of eternity.

Sunday 22 March 2009

We do not interpret scripture; scripture interprets us

“Brothers and sisters, we are not now discussing possible ways of understanding this text, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. It can be grasped in an ineffable way; human words cannot grasp it [ineffabiliter potest intelligi: non verbis hominis fit ut intelligatur]. We are discussing the Word of God, and why it is not understood. I am not speaking in order to make it understood, but to tell you what hinders it from being understood.... [This text] wasn’t read in order to be comprehended, but to make us humans grieve because we don’t comprehend it, and to make us discover what hinders our comprehension, so that we remove the hindrance, and hunger to perceive the immutable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.”

—Augustine, Sermon 117.3, in Patrologia Latina 38 (a sermon on John 1:1-3).

Saturday 21 March 2009

The church is our mother: a homily for mothering Sunday

A guest-post by Andrew Brower Latz

Text: Jn 19.25-27

In John’s highly symbolic gospel, the short scene we’ve just heard is layered with meanings. Notice first the presence of Mary. She has not been a major character in the story so far but she does appear twice near the beginning, in chapter 2. The first time is when she hints that Jesus should do something about the wine at the wedding. In this instance Jesus says to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” It is as if Jesus resists any attempt to control his work as Messiah, even when it comes in a context that normally carries obligation, such as the mother-son relationship. But then Jesus actually does something about his mother’s request, and so he begins his public ministry, reveals his glory, and evokes belief in his disciples.

After this story in the first 11 verses of chapter 2, we have the strange verse 12, in which Jesus goes to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and disciples, and they abide there for a few days. The verse seems strange because it appears to be there merely to connect two powerful stories in the narrative – the changing of water into wine and the cleansing of the Temple – but it’s not a very good connection. The key, though, is the theme of abiding. In John’s gospel, abiding with Jesus is what qualifies you to be a disciple; just being with Jesus over time is all you have to do. You might make serious mistakes but if you just stay with him, live with him through and beyond any mistakes or wrongdoing, you still get to be his disciple. So in verse 12, John announces a key theme of his gospel and includes Jesus’ mother as one of his disciples.

As we skip forward to chapter 19, which is Mary’s next appearance in the gospel, John lets us know that she is a model disciple, because she is still with Jesus through his terrible death. Now there is a difference from the wedding. Then it was not Jesus’ “hour”, and there was little room for Mary’s involvement, but now Jesus’ hour has come and he moves Mary into a central place. Mary not only has the honoured role of giving birth to the Messiah through her obedience to God, not only kick-starting Jesus’ work as the Messiah, but now he makes her the mother of the beloved disciple. As we might expect, there is more going on here than a new relationship for just two characters – but to explain it we need a quick detour into Revelation.

Why does Jesus call his mother “woman”? It seems a bit odd at the level of plot and character. It’s because the word “woman” is doing its main work at the level of symbolism. If we accept that John wrote Revelation, and that there is a common symbolism between the two books, we can read in Revelation 12 that the “woman” is a symbol of the mother of the Messiah as well as the mother of other “children” who “keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus”. In Revelation, the “woman” is clearly a symbol of Mary, with the implication that Mary, by birthing the Messiah, is the mother of the church too. So Mary stands for the church and is a model disciple; she and the church are central figures in God’s work to bring redemption to the earth. By calling Mary “woman”, Jesus is acknowledging her centrality in God’s saving work. As the Fathers of the Church liked to say, if Jesus is the second Adam, Mary is the second Eve; if God is our Father, the Church is our mother.

Jesus’ hour – the time in which he glorifies God by his death – is in a very profound way something he endures alone, but it is also transformed by the faithful abiding of Mary and the beloved disciple, by their discipleship. Jesus makes possible our salvation, but he does so with the participation of Mary and the Church. That is why, in the verse just after the end of our reading, when he has brought Mary and the beloved disciple into this central role, Jesus can then say that all his work is finished. What results from all this is a new family based on faithfulness to Jesus rather than genes or marriage, a family based on the grace of gift rather than the given of biology, symbolised by the new relationship of Mary and the beloved disciple. The newness of gift is a characteristic of God’s way with the world, of God’s “economy” (to use some theological jargon). God’s way is sometimes surprising, sometime miraculous, as Jesus’ own birth and the birth of Samuel remind us. Both of these men, born in unusual circumstances, would lead God’s people to greater faithfulness, would be part of God’s answer to some serious problems in Israel’s life; and in both cases, Hannah and Mary are vital to the work of God.

We are reminded by the stories of Samuel’s birth and Jesus’ death that to be “given to the LORD” can involve suffering as well as joy. It also involves, as Paul reminds us, the need to develop a number of virtues that are characteristic of the family of people who follow Christ: forgiveness, compassion, love, humility, kindness, meekness, patience, peace. In short, to work together to make a community of peace, love and forgiveness, to take up our responsibility for our community.

As we saw, Jesus made the Church central in God’s saving economy and Paul’s letter explains how that is so. The Church embodies in a community the way that Jesus lived in the world, and by doing so it opens up access to God. Just as Jesus made God available to all, to sinners and to the righteous, so does (or should) the Church. Just as Jesus forgave people on behalf of God, and so brought real, material salvation from sin, so does (or should) the Church. Paul tells us we should forgive as we have been forgiven by Christ. At the end of John’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and tells them that if they forgive the sins of any they are forgiven by God. In other words, we are given authority to forgive sins on God’s behalf as Jesus did; or to put it another way (stealing the words of Rowan Williams), it is our task to take responsibility for God.

This is why the Church is our mother. Jesus won our salvation for us not by persuading an otherwise disinclined God that he really should forgive us, but by putting us in contact with the non-competitive God who is already loving and forgiving us, who already accepts us no matter what our moral state – the God who doesn’t need to be protected from our wrongdoing. But Jesus is, in a very real way, gone, absent, ascended into heaven. But he, and the presence of God he opened up, is mediated to us by the church. Without the Church we do not have access to the redemption that Jesus began. That is why the great Catholic scholar Henri de Lubac liked to say that the Church is the sacrament.

That all sounds very good, but it’s not true; well, it is, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of the coin is that God is also to be found outside the church, and that we as the church often fail to embody God’s presence to one another and to the rest of the world. It is our task during Lent to discern if and how we have done so, and to turn away from that.

But we are not left alone. Remember from the liturgy that before we eat and drink, we call on the Holy Spirit to make Christ present with us through the bread and wine. And remember that before Jesus gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins and to take responsibility for God, he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.”

Wednesday 18 March 2009

The distance between God and God

In one of my classes last week, we discussed this remarkable passage from Simone Weil:

“God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms.... Because no other could do it, he himself went the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion…. This tearing apart, over which supreme love places the bond of supreme union, echoes perpetually across the universe in the midst of silence, like two notes, separate yet melting into one, like pure and heart-rending harmony. This is the Word of God. The whole creation is nothing but its vibration.”

—Simone Weil, Waiting for God, pp. 123-24.

Monday 16 March 2009

Once more with William Stringfellow

Okay, I promise this will be my last post on Stringfellow – here are some brief excerpts from four different essays on Stringfellow (by Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams and others). Note especially the brilliant title of the second essay: “Speaking Nonsense to Power.” I think that’s a great way of summing up Stringfellow’s theology.

“Stringfellow sometimes comes over refreshingly as someone very short on common sense. He had massive imagination, massive depth, and some ways very little self-protective sense. What the world calls common sense was uncommonly lacking in much of what he did. This is characteristic of many of the servants of Jesus Christ throughout the ages, because it is not common sense that they are interested in, it is the uncommon sense of Christ himself.”
—Rowan Williams, “Being Biblical Persons,” in William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective, ed. Anthony Dancer (Ashgate 2005), p. 185.

“Whereas the whole 20th-century Christian theological project has been conditioned by multiple arguments about how biblical texts can fit into our way of seeing things (whether that way is one circumscribed by autonomous secular reason or by pluralistic religious expressivism), Stringfellow’s point of departure is to transform existing procedures and to invite us to re-encounter the world narrated biblically. As he said …, his purpose was to construe America biblically, not to construe the Bible Americanly.”
—Simon Barrow, “Speaking Nonsense to Power: The Mission of William Stringfellow,” in William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective, ed. Anthony Dancer (Ashgate 2005), p. 175.

“ ‘Translating’ Stringfellow’s apocalypticism … is a means of evading what he was saying and avoiding what really disturbs the reader about him – the uncompromising character of his criticisms, his refusal to leave any ‘common ground’ for dialogue…. What is so remarkable about Stringfellow’s use of apocalyptic is that he did not think it needed to be demythologized. Rather than seeing apocalyptic as an extravagant and overblown way of talking about matters that liberal politics and social science discuss more directly, Stringfellow … wanted to help us see how apocalyptic language narrates our world.”
—Stanley Hauerwas and Jeff Powell, “Creation as Apocalyptic: A Homage to William Stringfellow,” in Radical Christian and Exemplary Lawyer: Honoring William Stringfellow, ed. Andrew McThenia (Eerdmans 1995), p. 32.

“Stringfellow died before I could have known him personally. In the books, though, he draws us into his circle, mixing anecdotes about himself and his acquaintances in with theological tracts. He seems to offer himself as a friend, one with bits of crazy advice and carelessly-repeated stories. Beneath our cacophonous politics, his pages whisper about how to live in a world both consumed by the power of death and infused in every corner with, for what it is worth, the Word of God.”
—Nathan Schneider, “The Biblical Circus of William Stringfellow”, Religion Dispatches March 2008.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Liturgical giggling

In a recent comment, Joanna mentions that flicking through the chorus book in church can sometimes produce “hysterical fits of giggles.” I was relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who occasionally giggles during inappropriate liturgical moments.

I must confess, there has been just one occasion when my wife and I were forced to get up and leave the building. We were visiting a liberal Lutheran church one Sunday morning, and the entire liturgy was organised as a celebration of Australian rocks and minerals. Please believe me, we meant no malice. We tried—really tried—to suppress our giggles. We grinned during the songs about rocks and dirt (and the “rock” was not a metaphor for Christ: we were simply thanking God for rocks!); we chuckled during the children’s talk (an edifying discourse on the importance of mining and geology); we began to shake and quiver during the greeting of peace (when we were asked to take a rock and compare it with our neighbours’ rocks). But by the time the minister started cataloguing all the different types of minerals in the “prayer of intercession”, my giggles (and my wife’s) had become so dangerously close to hysteria that we spontaneously rose from our seats and ran for the door, clutching our sides in polite terror. I can only hope they didn’t hear the peals of laughter that erupted—a few seconds later—from the car park.

William Stringfellow on the circus

Since Stringfellow was such an avid lover of the circus, I suppose I should conclude our Week of Stringfellow with a passage on the theological significance of the circus:

“In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more…. So the circus, in its open ridicule of death … shows the rest of us that the only enemy in life is death and that this enemy confronts everyone, whatever the circumstances, all the time…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly that death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death, which exposes this world as it truly is while it pioneers the Kingdom” (A Simplicity of Faith, pp. 89-91).

Normally the theological topics on this blog in any given week are completely random and unrelated. So I’d be interested to know whether readers have enjoyed this week-long focus on a single person. If this was an enjoyable diversion, I’d be happy to do similar themes in future, perhaps focusing on other neglected thinkers. (Lately I’ve been collecting and reading some of Donald MacKinnon’s more obscure and forgotten works: perhaps a MacKinnon week might be fun?)

Saturday 14 March 2009

William Stringfellow: freedom from death

William Stringfellow’s theological writing is pervaded by the conviction that the resurrection of Jesus frees us from the dominion of death. The world is ruled by principalities – by suprahuman, suprapersonal institutional powers which bind human life to the service of death. But the gospel sets us free to live and work within these institutions as servants of Christ; we are freed from the dominion of the principalities, since the resurrection of Christ frees us from the fear of death. Since death is the only power with which the principalities can threaten us, we have nothing whatsoever to fear! This, for Stringfellow, is the gospel; this is the Christian life.

Reading Rupert Shortt’s new biography of Rowan Williams, I came across a passage that beautifully illustrates this theme of freedom from death. On the morning of September 11, Rowan Williams was due to address a group of Christian leaders in a building next to Trinity Church, Wall Street – just one block away from the World Trade Center. They watched and waited in horror as the morning's events unfolded. When the first tower collapsed, their building began to shake and fill with smoke and soot. Rowan gathered with a few others in a stairway, trying to breathe the suffocating air. They felt certain they were going to die. Fred Burnham later described the experience:

“None of us will ever forget it. We were bonded for life. We became comrades in the face of death. And there was in the group a total submission and resignation to the prospect of death…. And I discovered for the first time that I am not afraid of death, and that has totally changed my life. My experience, my every breath from that moment on has been different from anything prior to that. That transformative moment, discovering that you are not afraid to die, can totally transfigure your life” (Rupert Shortt, Rowan's Rule, p. 214).

This is exactly the message of William Stringfellow’s theology: because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves strangely unafraid of death’s power; we discover that we are free. And this means that nothing will ever be the same again.

Friday 13 March 2009

The stupidest hymn ever written

In the previous post, I mentioned that hymn-writing has not declined: hymns have always been mainly bad; the selection of a very small number of highlights for our modern hymnbooks simply creates the misleading impression that earlier generations were better, more profound songwriters.

If you need any proof, Steve Holmes posts these amazing verses from the 18th century – this hymn probably deserves the title of the stupidest thing ever written (seriously, you could never find a contemporary hymn even remotely as stupid as this). It’s a stirring anti-Muslim tirade, written for the worship and edification of the saints:

The smoke of the infernal cave,
Which half the Christian world o’erspread,
Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save
The souls by that Impostor led,
That Arab-chief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroy’d Thy Asian fold.

O might the blood of sprinkling cry
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!
Assert Thy glorious Deity,
Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel,
And chase his doctrine back to hell.

Try singing it to the tune of “When I Survey Thy Wondrous Cross.” It’s very moving: I always get goosebumps when I sing the line about the “Unitarian fiend.” So who do you think wrote this liturgical gem? Why, it was Charles Wesley himself – the greatest hymn-writer who ever lived! As Steve observes, Charles Wesley published about 6,000 hymns – today, we still sing perhaps 20 of them. What happened to the other 5980? They were sung for a while (like our own contemporary ditties), then mercifully forgotten.

Steve also posts this little beauty, penned by a Baptist hymn-writer in 1696 – come on, lift your hands to the Lord and sing it with me now (to the tune of “Crown Him with Many Crowns”):

All mixtures, Lord, in Doctrine
And Practice thou dost hate;
Ourselves therefore with wicked men
Let’s not associate!

And John Stackhouse wants to complain about Chris Tomlin? Seriously? To accuse Tomlin of writing lyrics “considerably stupider than [those of] our much less educated Christian forebears”? Crikey, the man might as well be Shakespeare compared to these creative efforts of our esteemed “forebears”.

The moral of the story? That (for reasons difficult to fathom) the church of Jesus Christ can survive and preserve its witness even in spite of all the hymns and hymn-writers and hymnals – perhaps even in spite of all the worship CDs and worship leaders and worship committees. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Thursday 12 March 2009

Are our hymns becoming stupider?

In a spirited polemic, John Stackhouse complains about the stupidity of contemporary Christian hymns: “We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears.”

I sympathise with Stackhouse’s complaints. But in all fairness, I think the majority of hymns have always been pretty stupid. If we think the 19th century (for example) was full of great hymn-writers, it’s just because our hymnbooks today include only the highlights from that entire century. And let’s face it, even the highlights are usually pretty atrocious. Hymns typically suffer either from painfully bad lyrics or from a trivial, no-less-painful sentimentality.

The great hymns – and there are so few great hymns: if you subtract the Christmas carols and Charles Wesley, there’s hardly anything left – are always the exception. For strange and mysterious reasons, these hymns awaken our feelings of reverence and love and thanksgiving and joy. In spite of the fact that they are hymns, they somehow manage to communicate truth and to evoke deep feeling. 

Of course, there’s no single recipe for writing a great hymn. And similarly, bad hymns can be bad in several different ways. They can deploy metaphor ineptly, or they can mix metaphors in ridiculous ways (my favourite examples are hymns that get hopelessly muddled over the two different words “Son” and “sun”). They can use rhythm badly, so that the wrong kinds of words and syllables are stressed (this is most noticeable when the end-of-line stress falls on a banality). They can use horrible words with no poetic capacity (for example, I once heard a contemporary praise song with the line “this is my priority in life” – any hymn that uses the word “priority” will immediately be very very bad). And as Stackhouse observes, they can also fail to rhyme properly – although in my opinion, this is actually the least problematic feature of a bad hymn, since rhyme is far less important than the function of rhythm or metaphor or word-choice.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that our more progressive contemporary churches have actually invented a brand new way of writing bad hymns: these are the hymns that sound not so much like worship as the recitation of an official policy document. All the fashionable leftist causes are celebrated and affirmed with solemn sincerity; everything is carefully included, so that the entire song unfolds with all the humourless deliberation of a meeting of the committee of management. As I said, there are several kinds of bad hymns; but these ones are probably the worst of all (even though it is a genuine achievement to have invented an entirely new way of writing badly).

In any case, I don’t share John Stackhouse’s pessimism about contemporary hymn writing. Hymns have always been bad; the good hymn (to say nothing of great hymns like “Amazing Grace” or “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”) will always be the exception to the rule. The historical narrative of decay and decline really has more to do with churchly nostalgia than with the actual state of present (or past) songwriting.

Take, for example, Stuart Townend’s songs such as “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”. These songs are infinitely richer than most of the sentimental bourgeois crap produced by 19th-century hymn writers; and I’d say the same about a Keith Green song like “There Is a Redeemer”.

Bad hymns will always abound. But if we get a few good hymns each decade – and a couple of great ones in a century – then we should rejoice and clap our hands and sing and be glad.

Stringfellow on American leaders

“The … ingenious aggressions of the principalities against human life in society, the victimisation of human beings … by the demonic powers exposes a crucial aspect of the contemporary American social crisis. The American problem is not so simple that it can be attributed to a few – or even many – evil men in high places…. Our men in high places are not exceptionally immoral; they are, on the contrary, quite ordinarily moral. In truth, the conspicuous moral fact about our generals, our industrialists, our scientists, our commercial and political leaders is that they are the most obvious and pathetic prisoners in American society. There is unleashed among the principalities in this society a ruthless, self-proliferating, all-consuming institutional process which assaults … and destroys human life even among, and primarily among, those persons in positions of institutional leadership. They are left with titles but without effectual authority; with the trappings of power, but without control over the institutions they head; in nominal command, but bereft of dominion…. The most poignant victim of the demonic in America today is the so-called leader” (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, pp. 88-89).

A place where some holy spectacle lies

Wednesday 11 March 2009

William Stringfellow on prayer and profanity

“The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance” (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).

Tuesday 10 March 2009

William Stringfellow on the power of the state

“Remember, now, that the state has only one power it can use against human beings: death. The state can persecute you, prosecute you, imprison you, exile you, execute you. All of these mean the same thing. The state can consign you to death. The grace of Jesus Christ in this life is that death fails. There is nothing the state can do to you, or to me, which we need fear” (A Second Birthday, p. 133).

And it’s great to see that Halden is also joining in the Week of Stringfellow!

Monday 9 March 2009

The top ten films of 2008

Following on the heels of last week’s Oscars, let me offer my own top ten films of 2008:

1. The Visitor
2. Let the Right One In
4. Tell No One
5. Man on Wire
6. Slumdog Millionaire
7. Gran Torino
8. The Dark Knight
9. The Band’s Visit
10. In Bruges

And the award for the year’s most overrated film goes to the unbearably pretentious Benjamin Button.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Princeton Barth Conference: religion and the religions

The Center for Barth Studies in Princeton will be holding its fourth annual Barth conference in June: the theme is Karl Barth on Religion and the Religions.

I’ll be giving a paper on “God and the Gods: Karl Barth and Polytheism.” Other speakers include Matthew Myer Boulton (you really have to see his new book on Barth and worship), Lai Pan-Chiu, Garrett Green, Scott Jones, Mark R. Lindsay, Katherine Sonderegger and Charles West.

So I look forward to seeing all my Princeton friends again in June!

Friday 6 March 2009

William Stringfellow: a special offer

Thanks to our friends at Wipf & Stock, all of William Stringfellow’s works are now available to F&T readers at a big discount: if you buy any of his books from their website (they have reprinted all his works), you can enter the coupon code STRINGFELLOW40 to receive a 40% discount off the retail price.

Stringfellow’s work has made an enormous impression on me over the past months – I discovered him only recently (thanks to the suggestion of some F&T readers), and since then I’ve read nearly all his works and have thought about him constantly. (Even in Princeton last year, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade folks there to read less Barth and more Stringfellow – since what Barthians today need is precisely a good dose of theological ethics!)

If you’re interested in exploring Stringfellow for the first time, then let me offer a few tips. Personally, I think Free in Obedience is his best book; after that, I’d recommend another superb book on ethics, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Together with these two books, much of his best writing is found in his works of “autobiographical theology” (this is Stringfellow’s own peculiar genre), particularly in his profound meditation on personal illness, A Second Birthday, and in his deeply moving reflections on loss and mourning, A Simplicity of Faith.

Not convinced that you need more Stringfellow in your life? Okay, let me briefly outline a couple of his central themes and preoccupations:

The most striking feature of Stringfellow’s work is his powerful analysis and critique of the “principalities.” For him, the principalities are institutionalised forms of death. Institutions exist for the sake of their own expansion and self-perpetuation; they are not subject to human control, but are autonomous entities vis-à-vis all human agency. Human beings often believe “that they control the institution; whereas, in truth, the principality claims them as slaves” (Free in Obedience, p. 99). The institution seeks only its own prosperity and preservation, and it demands the absolute sacrifice of human life for this goal. “In the end, the claim for service that an institution makes upon human beings is an invitation to surrender their lives in order that the institution be preserved and prosper” (Free in Obedience, pp. 56-57).

The institution thus summons us to death: our idolatrous service to the institution is always a worship of death. “Death is the only moral significance which a principality proffers human beings…. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is – apart from God himself – the greatest moral power in the world, outlasting and subduing all other powers” (Ethic, p. 81). So each institution’s quest for survival and self-perpetuation is nothing else than “an absurd tribute to death” (Ethic, p. 90). And the autonomy of these principalities shows the utter vanity of liberal theology’s social gospel: “any social change predicated upon mere human action – whether prompted by a so-called social gospel or motivated by some pietism – is doomed” (Ethic, p. 18).

Stringfellow analyses the function of many types of institutions. For example, he critiques (based on his own experience as a street lawyer in Harlem) the capacity of the legal system to function as an “aggressor” against human life. It is mere sophistry to assume that injustice is merely occasional or aberrant; instead, injustice is built into the very functioning of law as such (Ethic, pp. 84-86). Or, again, he exposes the demonic character of the Protestant work ethic – an “obscene idea of justification” (Dissenter in a Great Society, p. 40) – which underlies middle-class America. “Despite all the ingenious pretensions and vain rationalizations to the contrary, men, according to the Bible, quite literally work to death” (Imposters of God, p. 25). Service to a middle-class work ethic is always ultimately an obscene tribute to death’s victory, and thus a denial of the gospel’s call to freedom from death.

But above all, Stringfellow’s prophetic importance lies in his critique of the way churchly institutions themselves function as demonic principalities. The demonic character of churchly institutions “cannot be hidden by the simple retention of some of the condiments of the Christian faith”; indeed: “Much of what is now discussed and practised in the American churches as the witness of the Church does not really pertain to the witness of the Church to the life and action of God in the world, but rather to the witness of the Church to itself as churchly institution” (Free in Obedience, p. 96). In particular, both “gospel and church [have] become adjuncts or conveyances of civil religion and of a mock-sanctified status of political authority” (Conscience and Obedience, p. 49). The church in America, Stringfellow argues, “has gained so huge a propertied interest that its existence has become overwhelmingly committed to the management of property and the maintenance of the ecclesiastical fabric which that property affords. It is a sign certainly of the demonic in institutional life where the survival of the principality is the dominant morality” (Conscience and Obedience, p. 103).

In all this, Stringfellow’s point is not to advocate any cheap anarchist refusal of institutional life; he is not dreaming of a world without institutions (cf. Free in Obedience, p. 94). Instead, his point is that Christ’s resurrection empowers us to exist with freedom within the various institutions by which our lives are structured; free to live and work without anxiety, without looking to any institution for moral worth or immortality. In short, the Christian is free to obey precisely because she is free from death and from the fear of death. “[Christ’s] resurrection means the possibility of living in this life, in the very midst of death’s works, safe and free from death” (Free in Obedience, p. 72). The task of Christian witness is always “to expose the transience of death’s power in the world” (Free in Obedience, p. 44); and the church is liberated to become something like the true institution, the “exemplary principality” (as Stringfellow somewhere calls it) which fulfills its proper calling by serving God instead of death.

The resurrection of Jesus thus interrupts the demonic rule of the principalities, inaugurating a trajectory of freedom and life amidst the death-regime of the principalities. In this way, the resurrection makes it possible to confront and resist the demands of the principalities in true freedom. “In all idolatry, … death is the reality which is actually worshipped. Death is the deity of all idols; every idol is an acolyte of death…. In light of the Gospel, every life, every person, every event, is included in the context of death and resurrection – of death and the resurrection of life, of death and transcending the power of death…. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means the available power of God confronting and transcending the power of death here and now in the daily realities of our lives” (Imposters of God, pp. 63-65).

If this has whet your appetite, then you really should get into some Stringfellow for yourself: if you want a 40% discount off the retail price, just enter the coupon code STRINGFELLOW40 over at Wipf & Stock.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Church and eucharist

“The point of saying that the Eucharist makes the church is that the body of Christ is not a perduring institution which moves linearly through time, but must be constantly received anew in the Eucharistic action…. Because the church lives from the future, it is a thing that is not. The church inhabits a space and time which is never guaranteed by coercion or institutional weight, but must be constantly asked for, as gift of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the imagination of the church, but it is not our imagination in the sense that Christians build the church. The Eucharist is God’s imagination of the church; we participate in that imagination insofar as we imagined by God, incorporated into the body of Christ through grace….

“Eschatology is always in tension with history. This is the church’s story. It is not reactive in the sense that the church is defined and located by the state, or by other narratives external to its own. Opposition to the powers and principalities of the world is written into the very narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is commemorated in the Eucharist.”

—William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Blackwell, 1998), pp. 269-73. And on a related note, check out this failed gospel tract.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

A children's Lenten hymn

In case you missed it, the other day Saint Egregious 
posted this hilarious little hymn in a comments thread – here it is again, for your edification and for the edification of your children:

(Sung to Old MacDonald)

Mean old Satan was a grump, e-i-e-i-o

Sat sweet Jesu on a hickory stump, e-i-e-i-o

With a tempt-tempt here and a tempt-tempt there

Here a tempt there a tempt, everywhere a tempt-tempt

Mean old Satan was a grump, e-i-e-i-o

Told Sweet Jesu he could be rich, e-i-e-i-o

Sweet Baby J ’buked that sonofabitch, e-i-e-i-o

With a left hook here and a right cross there, 

Here a bam, there a blam, everywhere a slam-slam

Man that body cast sure do itch, e-i-e-i-o

Monday 2 March 2009

Two new books on Rowan Williams

Spending time with the work of Rowan Williams is a rare joy. It’s like the poetry of George Herbert: reading Williams, you sometimes feel as though you’re overhearing a private conversation between the author and God. Reading work like this is not merely interesting and informative; it does something to you.

So anyway, if you need a little more of Rowan in your life (and who doesn’t?) there are two excellent new books about him. Matheson Russell has edited a collection of essays engaging with some of the central themes of Williams’ theology: On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Cascade 2009). I think this is an important and valuable book (admittedly I’m a little biased, since the book also includes my own essay on how Williams’ theology of resurrection shapes his understanding of church history). There are some excellent essays on Williams’ view of scripture, his political theology, his understanding of “the body’s grace,” his understanding of creatureliness, and more. The book is available from Amazon, or (at a better price) from the publisher. Here’s an excerpt from my own essay:

“While [Kathryn] Tanner views Christian history as devoid of any criteria by which some meanings and interpretations may legitimately be privileged over others, Williams’ account suggests that there is indeed a fundamental criterion by which the faithfulness and legitimacy of doctrinal formulations can be measured: for Williams, this criterion is not some stable core or grammar which inheres in the community itself, but it is rather the event through which the community was created. This radical singularity, this shattering disruption which occurred in the resurrection of Jesus – this is the criterion which stands in judgment over all Christian speech. And since this is the only ultimate criterion, the church can never rest assured in its own possession of ‘orthodoxy’: it must be unceasingly disturbed and unsettled and brought to judgment. The purpose of doctrine is to facilitate this process of judgment, to teach Christian speech the discipline of remaining open to the reality of its own strange past” (p. 63).

Secondly, Rupert Shortt has now released his big biography of the Archbishop, entitled Rowan’s Rule (Eerdmans 2009). This is a lovely book, packed with intelligent analysis of Williams’ theology and with surprising insights into his life and career. (I’m especially grateful for the valuable discussions of some of the young Rowan’s unpublished writings.) I’m reading this book slowly in order to savour it; but so far, here are some of the interesting new things I’ve learned about Rowan Williams:

  • As a Cambridge student, he once expressed his contempt for the historical-critical reading of the Gospels by composing a source-critical version of Winnie the Pooh.
  • As a student in the early 70s, he edited and contributed to three volumes of student poetry.
  • As a student, he had an annoying habit of causing numerous women to fall in love with him. (I reckon it’s the eyebrows.)
  • In New York 1974, he delivered a (still unpublished) series of lectures on the theology of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. (If anyone out there knows Rowan personally, please, for God’s sake, beg and entreat him to publish these! Implore him as Farel implored Calvin!)
  • Throughout most of his twenties, he took a traditional stance against both women’s ordination and same-sex relationships.
  • In 1983, he applied unsuccessfully to be Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College London; the job went instead to – you guessed it – Colin Gunton!
  • He finished work on his great book on Arius during a sabbatical in Chicago in 1985; but the whole manuscript was nearly lost forever when his luggage went astray in transit to England! (Thus proving what we have all long suspected: that airports are secretly trying at all times to do the devil’s work.)
So far, my only mild disappointment is that Shortt doesn’t offer more details about the exotic and enigmatic personality of Donald Mackinnon. (He does, however, quote a former colleague: “Donald would even tell you the time of day with the angst of Auschwitz.”) But on a very happy note, I saw Murray Rae on the weekend, and I was thrilled to hear that one of his doctoral students has nearly completed a full intellectual biography of Mackinnon.

So anyway, do something good for yourself this year: spend a little more time with Rowan Williams.

Sunday 1 March 2009

A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame


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