Thursday 30 April 2009

On sermons: a rant

A guest-post by Aaron Ghiloni

I know preaching. For four long years in Bible college I heard 14 sermons each week. Count ’em:

  • 1 at Sunday morning church
  • 1at Sunday night church
  • 1 at Monday morning chapel
  • 1 at Wednesday morning chapel
  • 3 at Wednesday night church (the pastor’s son tended to fit at least this many sermons into one go)
  • 1 at Friday morning chapel
  • 6 in Homiletics courses throughout the week (where the homiletical advice was – and honest to Jehovah, I’m quoting verbatim – “If you’re not sweating you’re not preaching!”)
  • I’m not even counting listening to Jack Hayford and Chuck Swindoll on the radio each night.
Since then, as I’ve wandered through sundry denominations, I’ve heard the sermon in nearly all its forms: a 15 minute homily is far too long, while a 45 minute “message” is plainly unanointed. A lifetime pulpit pounding and sanctified lecturing has led me to one obvious conclusion: 

There should be a moratorium on the sermon. Let’s go straight from the Gospel to the Creed and cut the drivel in between. I may have heard fourteen sermons a week in Bible college, but I don’t remember the one I heard last week.

Preaching puts me to sleep which, by my definition, is the last thing preaching should do. The sermon should be revelatory – generating ambiguity, disrupting expectation. (Okay, so I stole this from Rowan “Ray-of-Darkness” Williams, but since this rant is about sermons, stealing someone else’s ideas is acceptable.) But, in fact, we already know exactly what to expect – fifteen minutes of nothing. Edward Schillebeeckx says the service of the word should be like the “roaring of the lion” – it is more like the yawning of a sloth.


Ironically, most preachers genuinely believe they are above-average public speakers. (They can’t all be right, can they?) And as Gabriel Moran notes, most preachers also believe that all theology is homiletically-centered. Demurring, he says: “Probably only a clergyman could believe that preaching is a good model, let alone the best model, for understanding the religious life of mankind. It would be a near impossibility to find any non-clergymen who think of preaching and sermonizing as significant at all. Most people who give a thought to it conclude that preaching is an anachronism which is allowed existence because it bothers no one. However, if one’s professional life is centered on any activity, it is possible to view the whole world in light of that endeavor.”

Preach it, Brother!

Each brand of Christianity has its own formulas, but here is the structure of a typical, Anglo-mainline sermon:

First, a joke. (Most likely the joke is taken from internet or, if the preacher is retired, from Reader’s Digest. Most likely the main character in the joke is a religious person, and in all likelihood a member of the clergy.)

Second, a repetition of what has already been testified to the Scripture readings. (At this point the congregation is silently wondering how a sermon that started off so witty got so boring so quickly.)

Third, an unacknowledged regurgitation of the latest book the preacher feels proud of having read (connection to Scripture texts will be vague; connection to joke will be nonexistent).

Fourth, clichés. That’s how it always ends.


Clichés, truisms, platitudes – no sermon is complete without them. If the structure of a sermon is clichéd, than the content and delivery of the sermon are all the more clichéd. There are many sorts of clichés packed into one sermon.

First, there are the pious clichés. They’re credal: God is love; God loves you; Jesus loves you; this church (no, this “community”) loves you; change is coming; everything is holy; be astonished at small graces; be ready for change which, after all, is coming because God loves you. We have a passé theology.

Next, there are the anecdotal clichés. These are easy to spot: they inevitably put the preacher into a tight situation in which he, after a protracted struggle, is proved a hero. A story about one’s kids is common too, but never as homiletically reliable as the first-person tall tale. We have a religion of anecdotes.

Finally, there are the rhetorical clichés. You know them: the feigned eye contact; the “practical turn” where we find out what it all means in “real life”; the open-ended question; three points and a poem; alliteration; the comfy conviction (being somber helps church people relax). We have an unimaginative art.

Oh, now I remember: the last sermon I heard was the one I gave. (I had to end with an anecdote about me.)

An Easter dying

A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius

After surgery in May 2008, followed by chemotherapy and a promising prognosis, a scan disclosed that Gwyn’s bowel cancer had spread, incurably. Early in 2009 his decline accelerated, and by March Gwyn was confined to bed. He died at home, just after Easter. For the homily (given after tributes from Gwyn’s two sons), the names have been changed.

Several times a week earlier this month I shared in a rare and poignant experience: the dying of Gwyn James. But while T. S. Eliot called April “the cruellest month,” this year it was also an inspiring one.

Rare and poignant, because nowadays personally nursing the dying is the exception, usually we wait for the phone call from the hospital or care home; while preparing the dying for death – well, our modern obsession with youth and health has turned that venerable ministry into an embarrassing oddity, thanks but no thanks.

A rare and poignant experience, then, but also an inspiring one, because though Gwyn knew that he was dying, he approached his earthly end only with gratitude for what had been and serenity for what will be; and indeed an awesome experience, because in the puny presence of death, the immense presence of God, the room silent and still, as if the world were pausing, paying its respects, and angels were holding their breath, waiting… And the bond between us: reading scripture – psalms, and, latterly, Holy Week and Easter narratives; shared prayers of loss, of letting go, and, as we held hands, of embracing the promise of life, not just beyond death, but in the very midst of dying. No fear, total trust, and the peace of Christ. Around noon on the day Gwyn died, Rachel [Gwyn’s wife] joined us. It was a holy moment. In the verse of Rainer Maria Rilke:

O Lord, grant each his own, his death indeed,
the dying which out of that same life evolves
in which he once had meaning, love, and need.

These were especially precious times for me as Gwyn’s minister. Gwyn always denied that he was a “spiritual” person. Well, so much the worse for “spirituality”, with its now fashionable veneer of enchantment. All at chapel knew Gwyn, quite simply, as a Christian, a man of a simple, (if you like) flat-cap faith, one on whom the only spirit that matters – the Holy Spirit – rested: a person of scrupulous integrity, straight yet not stern (he relished a good French vintage!), whose Yes was Yes and No was No, who took both his promise as a church member “to live in the fellowship of the church and to share in its work”, and also his promise as an elder “to perform [his] duties … faithfully”, with the utmost seriousness, and who deployed his considerable practical gifts on behalf of the Synod as well as the local church.

But the incident that I will never forget, and that for me captures the measure of the man, was a visit I paid to Gwyn almost twelve years ago during the URC’s discussions on human sexuality. Gwyn had very strong views on the matter, and it was more than just a disappointment to him that after a thorough debate the URC in general, and Bethel in particular, took an inclusive view. Indeed he searched his conscience as to whether he could remain an elder, or even a church member. So I went to see Gwyn for what I hoped would be a conversation but what I feared would be an impasse issuing in a resignation. We talked frankly, but amiably; we disagreed implacably, but respectfully. And the result? Unlike other church members that I’ve lost, for demonstrably insupportable theological reasons, Gwyn, with tradition on his side, yet saw that the local church is bigger than the minister, or even its present membership; but even more, and most significantly, (as Rowan Williams puts it) he saw that we must “turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided … in the trust that … the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing.” It was like, Wow! This is what being members of the body of Christ is all about – speaking the truth to each other in love, seeking the truth with each other in love, and, despite dispute, continuing to recognise each other as friends of Jesus whose divine grace is stronger than human disagreement.

That incident remains, for me, a parable that helps to sustain my ministry. But I’m sure you could all write your own personal parables, which begin: “The kingdom of God is like this: there once was a man named Gwyn James…”

Falling over things in the dark

Many thanks to Kim for his generous review of my chapter in the new book, On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays, ed. Matheson Russell (Cascade 2009).

Wednesday 29 April 2009

New books on Karl Barth

Lately I’ve received copies of some very nice new books on Barth – including the following:

And here are three forthcoming volumes to look out for in the coming months:

The best-ever title for a blog post

Halden offers a superb meditation on 1 Corinthians 13, and his reflection has the best title of any blog post I’ve ever read. I hope many of you pastors will use this as your sermon title next time you preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Perhaps your next wedding sermon...?

Monday 27 April 2009

Flu pandemic: on journalistic discourse

Here’s a telling illustration of the way the news media uses language: a report on swine flu yesterday said that the virus “is feared to be the worst outbreak since the SARS pandemic failed to actualise in 2003.”

A pandemic that failed to actualise? I guess that’s on the same semantic level as a “non-actual death” or a “non-actual pregnancy”.

Come to think of it, this kind of language could come in very handy on your CV: “I have also written three books that never actualised – and one of them even received a non-actual book prize...”

We speak our vows in sorry whispers

An empty tomb hymn

John Hartley posted this playful hymn as a comment – it’s so good, I can’t resist posting it here as well:

Easter’s dawning day reveals
a tomb, once filled, now empty!
All in vain were Pilate’s seals,
and questions rise aplenty!

Did he swoon and then revive,
to push enormous boulders?
Could he really be alive
though pierced by testing soldiers?

Did the women all forget
the tomb’s exact location?
Is he maybe buried yet
awaiting exhumation?

Did some robbers come and hump
his body off for profit?
Surely they would not just dump
the linen wrappings off it?

Did authorities remove
the body for protection?
They’d produce it! That would prove
there’d been no resurrection!

In a Godless universe
the dead stay dead forever.
If he rose, then here’s the worst:
this God exists! Oh, bother!

Sunday 26 April 2009

In the graveyard Christ appeared

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Puer nobis)

In the graveyard Christ appeared,
reaching out to Mary,
wiped her tears and calmed her fears –
disciples, they were wary. [Repeat.]

Christ on the Emmaus Road
gave two his attention,
yet another episode
of blind incomprehension.

Jesus in the upper room
late that Sunday evening,
friends still filled with doom and gloom –
they hadn’t got the meaning.

Seven days, and Thomas too,
in doubt and deep dejection,
showed he didn’t have a clue
about the resurrection.

By the lakeside – Christ again! –
after celebration,
questioned Peter there and then
about his dedication.

Still disciples ask today,
“Was it an illusion?”
Holy Spirit, chase away
our muddle and confusion.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Alister McGrath's 2009 Gifford Lectures: A Fine-Tuned Universe

If there was a prize for the year’s most efficient theology publisher, it would have to go to the hard-working people at WJK. Less than two months ago, Alister McGrath was presenting his 2009 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen; earlier this week I was surprised to find that the published lectures had already landed on my doorstep! The lectures are published as Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (WJK 2009), 262 pp.

The material here forms a sequel to McGrath’s recent extended essay, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Blackwell 2008), where he argued that a new “natural theology” could provide not a causal explanation for the cosmos but instead an “explanatory unification” which makes sense of various (otherwise very strange) observable phenomena. Nature can thus become a bearer of transcendence – not through any inherent capacity in nature itself (after all, there is no mere uninterpreted nature, but only different constructed “readings” of nature); but when nature is seen through the lens of a Christian trinitarian ontology. This whole approach to natural theology is best summed up in C. S. Lewis’s famous remark: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

A Fine-Tuned Universe develops this approach through a particular case study: the so-called “anthropic principle”, which describes the universe’s peculiar and puzzling friendliness towards life.

McGrath’s argument is that the universe’s fine-tuning is consonant with a Christian picture of the world. At the core of the book is a scientific-theological reading of Augustine. In a series of engagements with contemporary science (the constants of the universe; the origins of life; the chemistry of water; the constraints of evolution; the teleology of evolution; and emergence), McGrath argues that Augustine’s creation theology provides resources for making theological sense of both the origins of the universe and the processes of Darwinian evolution. 

There is no notion here of “proving” the existence of God or the truth of Christian teaching; instead, McGrath’s claim is that there is a coherent “fit” between the observable world and the imaginative resources of Christian tradition. “What is observed within the natural order resonates with the core themes of the Christian vision of God” (p. 95). More than that, he also argues that Darwin’s theory of natural selection opens the way to a theological reevaluation of Augustine’s creation theology: read retrospectively in the light of biological evolution, Augustine becomes an important resource for thinking of creation in terms of “both primordial actuality and emergent possibility” (p. 216).

One of my own discomforts with “natural theology” lies in the romanticism with which it is usually undertaken: theologians reflect on an imaginary world of idealised peace and harmony and perfection, instead of taking seriously the apparent blindness and ugliness and brutality that is so easily perceived in the created order. Even a thinker as probing and sensitive as T. F. Torrance – with his immense ruminations on the order and structure and rationality of the natural world – seems far too little impressed by what Karl Barth called the “shadow side of creation,” the fact that creation’s “goodness” is a difficult and demanding article of faith rather than an observable phenomenon.

So it’s to his credit that McGrath – unlike most exponents of natural theology – underscores the fact that Christian theology must try somehow to account for these “two sides” of nature. Nature is, as Luther put it, simul bona et mala: it is marked by “beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, good and evil” (p. 80). McGrath suggests that nature should thus be interpreted within the context of the economy of salvation, so that we perceive the created world to be “decayed and ambivalent,” a “morally and aesthetically variegated entity whose goodness and beauty are often opaque and hidden, yet [is] nevertheless irradiated with the hope of transformation” (p. 82).

I’m not sure McGrath’s approach – which leans so heavily on notions of coherence, rationality and order – provides a full response to the forceful criticism (as developed, e.g. by Hauerwas and Jüngel) that natural theology tends towards a theologia gloria, leaving no place for the cross of Christ. But his remarks about creation as both bona et mala are surely a step in the right direction, and, hopefully, a step away from any mere romantic “re-enchantment” of the world. (As far as I can tell, nothing could be less “enchanting” than the idea that Christ’s bloody death on a cross discloses the true grain of the universe.)

In any case, this is a significant and very fascinating book. McGrath has been working around the theme of “nature” for several years now – but his best work is found in these two latest volumes, The Open Secret and A Fine-Tuned Universe.

Thy kingdom come

“What frightens and frees us simultaneously about this new and alien kingdom of God which Jesus preached and told of is the simple fact that it is God’s and not our own. That is a dark menace to the complacency and contentment of those who flourish under the kingdoms of this world; a shining vision of release and new beginnings to the victims of the present order; and perhaps also a mocking rebuke to the programs, projects, and pride of those who hope to create a new order by themselves. It is tragic, therefore, that a gospel which promises justice, love and peace only by insisting that these are God’s own gifts, which remain alien, foolish, and impossible except for grace alone, has continually been misconstrued and misappropriated as the goal and burden of human and Christian aspiration. Piously, or politically, we cripple ourselves with the need to bring about God’s righteousness on earth, failing to hear what Jesus so vividly declares: that we need not shoulder that burden because the goal itself does not need to be accomplished. The goal is a fact, God’s fact, the fact of grace and promise. No gap divides what God says from what God does.”

—Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans 2001), 23.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The green Bible

Have you heard of The Green Bible? It’s a new green-letter edition of the Good Book in which “verses that speak to God’s care for creation are highlighted in green.” The Bible also includes essays and inspirational quotes on ecology, and it’s printed on recycled paper using soy-based ink with a cotton/linen cover. Because “caring for the earth is not only a calling, but a lifestyle.”

That last sentence is very strange and very creepy. But it’s also an uncannily precise description of the dynamics of contemporary Christian chic: the Christian life is understood not as vocation but as a particular lifestyle choice, complete with its own market of lifestyle-defining niche products. Ye shall know them by their T-shirts and their cotton/linen Bible covers.

Anyway, the latest issue of First Things includes a splendid piece by Alan Jacobs on the phenomenon of the Green Bible: “The Green Bible presents us with a curious kind of natural theology: We start with things we know to be true from trusted sources – Al Gore, perhaps? – and then we turn to Scripture to measure it against those preexisting and reliable authorities. And what a relief to discover that God is green. Because we already know that it’s good to be green – what we didn’t know is whether God measures up to that standard.”

Jacobs is right to poke fun at the project’s entire underlying methodology: “The project website tells us that ‘with over 1,000 references to the earth in the Bible, compared to 490 references to heaven and 530 references to love, the Bible carries a powerful message for the earth.’ I am not sure what to make of this argumentum ad arithmeticum, unless the point is that the earth is approximately 1.88 times more important to God than love and 2.04 times more important than heaven. Based on my own research into this topic and following the same method, I am prepared to say that the earth is 7.04 times more important to God than donkeys (which are mentioned 142 times in the Bible).”

And he is right to observe that scripture itself is a little more ecologically ambiguous than The Green Bible would have you believe. Exactly what ecological edification are we to draw from the story of Jesus cursing and blighting a fig tree? Or from a passage like Ezekiel 20: “Mortal, set your face towards the south, preach against the south, and prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb; say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you, and every dry tree; the blazing fire shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it.”

Perhaps (for a different niche market) we should also produce The Arsonist’s Bible, with verses highlighted orange wherever God burns, scorches, or blows shit up. “Because with 1134 references to fire and burning, and only 158 references to salvation, the Bible carries a powerful message for those who enjoy destroying things.”

Sunday 19 April 2009

One more Easter sermon: early on the first day of the week

A sermon by Douglas Harink

Text: Matt. 28:1-10; 2 Cor. 5:11-6:2

The arch of the sun’s journey is now noticeably higher and longer. We step into its path and feel its warm renewing power as it passes over. The lawn, only last week heavily burdened with its white winter coat, now wears a lighter green. In that sunny patch of soil on the south side of the house the first shoots of crocuses and daffodils push out from their dark habitation. The robin – even if she is just plain annoying at 4:00 in the morning – joyfully and incessantly announces that she will soon steal four perfect blue ovals from the sky and put them in her nest. A jogger in a tank top and a cyclist in shorts pull on the near fringes of the reluctant season. And all over again we thrill to the very same story: the lamb of spring will slay the lion of winter, and all will be well.

We may be forgiven for thinking that spring is the season of resurrection. Yes, we may be forgiven. But it is forgiveness that we would need. Think for a moment: if you were to travel on this very Easter day to New Zealand perhaps, or the southern tips of Chile or Argentina, another season altogether would be making itself felt, with ever shorter days, and a chill in the air, and leaves falling, and sweaters and jackets being donned rather than doffed. The birds would be flying to warmer climes. The natural rhythm would be tending toward the cold and the dark and the dormant.

Easter is not a season in nature’s cycle. Resurrection is not a stage in the circle of life. The kingdom of God is not a hidden potential in this world. There is no power within us that will bring about the new creation.

In fact, there is nothing natural in any of the events of these days. On Good Friday all of Jesus’ natural human powers – and at the age of about 30 years those would be at their peak – all of his natural human powers are abruptly interrupted, halted, snuffed out: he is arrested, tried, and brutally executed. He is truly dead and buried. On the next day, the Sabbath, Jesus is not resting, as a faithful Jew should. No, he is dead, lifeless, empty – a corpse. His life has come to an end; he has no inner resources of renewal, there is no vital force of nature that can bring him back.

And so Easter is in no sense an awakening; it is not a rejuvenation; it is not a resuscitation, it is not even a miraculous reversal of death. Resurrection is not simply the next thing that Jesus does, or the next thing that happens to him in the natural course of things. No. Resurrection is something else altogether, something wholly other, something from beyond, something purely unnatural. Resurrection is God.

All of this is from God,” Paul declares in our text. If Good Friday is about Jesus’ life being brutally interrupted, captured and destroyed by the powers of sin and death, Easter is about Jesus’ death being even more brutally interrupted, captured, and destroyed by God. Resurrection is the unimaginable power of God’s very own eternal life coming upon the lifeless, empty body of Jesus. Life swallows death. Think on that image for a moment. God’s life swallows the death of God’s Son, destroying death by consuming it. Easter is about Jesus’ dead body being taken up into the indestructible life of God, and being given back to us as the transfigured body of his living glory. Resurrection is the Father’s eternally living YES spoken over the faithful life and death of his only Son in the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Resurrection is Jesus’ death swallowed up in divine victory. Easter is God.

And that is why Paul must speak of a new creation. Jesus Christ lives because God has called forth a new reality from the nothingness of death. The powers of this age cannot bring about a new world. No amount of effort on our part can generate a new humanity. Trying harder, planning strategically, employing best practices, gaining more control, moving the agenda forward, being purpose-driven, taking out the competition, defeating the enemy – those are the ways that we get from here to there, from today to tomorrow, from failure to success, from defeat to victory, in our various worlds of family, work, community and nation. They are driven by the fear that there is never enough life to go around, that it is a scarce commodity, that death finally wins. And so we desire and acquire and hoard and defend the means of life for ourselves: water and land, crops and cattle, gas and oil, gold and uranium, drugs and hospitals, weapons and warships – mine, all mine, because there is never enough of life to go around, and I must survive even if no-one else does. Everyone else is potentially an enemy of my life. Does even God want his share? Forget about it!

But the new creation and the resurrection life of God can never be acquired by winning the competition over the scarce resources of life, nor even more gently, by trying harder, planning strategically, employing best practices, gaining more control, moving the agenda forward, being purpose-driven. There is no way from here to the new creation. There is no way from here to the kingdom of resurrection. The kingdom can only come. The new creation can only be given.

And the kingdom does come from God. The new creation is given by God. It pours forth from God’s own inexhaustible excess of life. While we are trying desperately to grasp after life, as much of it as possible – and don’t let anyone get in my way, or have any of what I’ve got – while we are doing that, God is pouring life out freely upon everyone – no limits, no stinginess.

“All of this is from God,” declares Paul. And it is all from God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It comes to us from God, only because God has made all of us, the whole of humanity, sharers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ we have already died. When Christ died, we died with him. “One has died for all; therefore all have died,” says Paul.

We have to grant that this is a strange thought. What can it mean? It at least means this: not even death can separate us from Christ. He himself was truly dead, and we ourselves have already truly shared in his death. The death which will still inevitably come upon us has already come upon Jesus – and yet it could not hold him. We have already died with Christ. How can death hold us in fear and bondage, if we have already been to hell and back with Jesus? Death is still real, but it has no real power, no power to bind, no power to destroy finally, and therefore no power to terrify. For Jesus Christ himself, once dead, has been raised up and now lives eternally with the very life of God. Death cannot hold us, not now, not ever. “He died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

Easter is God’s life poured out on the crucified and buried Jesus; and poured out also on us, because our life, like our death, happens first in Jesus. A whole new human reality comes into being when Jesus is raised from the dead. He himself is the Human One, the very reality of human being fully alive with the life of God, living for God. If you want to know human being in all its truth, look to Christ. He is the new creation. If you want to know your friends or your neighbours or your fellow citizens or your enemies in all their truth, look to Christ. In him they are created anew. “From now on,” Paul declares, “all of the old standards of judgment are gone. If anyone is in Christ the new creation has already dawned; the old no longer has power; the new is all there is.”

Christ alone is the measure not only of what we see, but also of how we see. There is no human being who has not already died in Christ; there is no human being who is not already being called to life in Christ. That is how we are to know and live with every person whom we now encounter. We are not in a fierce competition with either friend or enemy for resurrection life as a scarce commodity. Easter inaugurates the economy of God’s life in abundance. Even if I share all that I think I have with another, I have not made a dent in the supply. The root of reconciliation with God, and reconciliation with my neighbour, is sunk deep in the inexhaustible soil of resurrection life.

Easter calls us to life, to be alive in that very power of divine life which raised Jesus from the dead. In him we live; for him we live; to him we live. Do I need to spell out in detail what that life looks like? I don’t think so. Would it not look like life lived according to the vision of the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus tells us? Would it not look like life bearing the fruits of the Spirit, as Paul tells us? Would it not look like the life of holy love and practical care that we read about in the letters of John and James? Would it not look like a life of patient suffering in the face of persecution of which Peter writes? But before all, and above all, and in all, would it not look like the very life which Jesus Christ himself lived from the day of his baptism to the day of his crucifixion? He is the way, the truth and life; and this is the life given for us and to us; this is the life we are called into; this is life beyond the reach of death.

Each of the four gospels records that the risen Jesus appeared at dawn, early on the first day of the week. I believe that is much more than a note about the calendar. In those three days of Easter – the sixth day of the week, Good Friday; the seventh or Sabbath day, Holy Saturday; and the first day of the week, Resurrection Day – in those three days we find ourselves on the very hinge of creation, time and history. In the first creation, on the first day of the week the light shines in the darkness and the story of creation moves out from there. The whole week of creation finds its culmination in the seventh day, in the Sabbath of God’s delight. But through human sin and cosmic catastrophe that first creation is now in bondage to decay and death. The cross of Christ now stands as the emblem of the whole week of creation in bondage. The Sabbath is no longer the emblem of divine rest and delight, but of the deathly silence of the Word made flesh, who takes his place among the dead.

Will God abandon his Holy One to the grave, and in him all the work of his hands from the very beginning until now?

No! “Early on the first day of the week,” God renders judgment. This one who was crucified shall live with the very life of God. All of creation in its bondage to death, and all of humanity in its bondage to sin, shall be gathered up into this one human body. Nothing shall be left behind. All things, contracted to this span, shall in him now explode with the light and life of God himself. Early on the first day of the week, this day, the day of resurrection – early on the first day of the week, creation begins again, humanity begins again, life begins again. “All this is from God.” We do not live toward this day, as we once lived toward the Sabbath. We live from this day. Or rather, we live in this day. “Look,” says Paul, “now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation!”

Early on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, the day of new creation, the day of the LORD – that’s today! Live in it.

Saturday 18 April 2009

The theology of William Young, The Shack

A reader emailed me to ask about the theology of William Young’s bestselling novel The Shack – which I see has been reviewed nearly 3,000 times at Amazon!

I haven’t read the novel, so I have no opinion about the story or its theology. (I actually tried thumbing through a copy some time last year, but I found it hard to muster any interest in a character named Mack.)

But if you’ve read the book and have any thoughts about it, please feel free to comment here.

Twenty-nine days of sinning and forty to repent

  • On graduate study in theology
  • A massive blog series: the good news
  • I ♥ chick tracts
  • A wonderful series: theology of childhood
  • A new open source online journal on Theological Librarianship
  • A. N. Wilson believes again
  • An interview with Robert Jenson
  • A critique of David Bentley Hart on pacifism
  • Cynthia on Nietzsche and metaphor
  • A new edition of Calvin’s 1541 French Institutes
  • A Times Higher Education piece on Milbank and RO
  • An excellent series of radio interviews with Thomas Szasz, on the idea that we live in a therapeutic state or “pharmacracy”
  • Rowan Williams’ Holy Week talks on prayer (I haven’t listened to them yet, but I’ve heard that they’re excellent)
  • Finally, a stunning polemical assessment of David Bentley Hart’s book In the Aftermath – here’s an excerpt: “In what can only be described as a tone of lament, Hart mourns that we no longer have the gods of antiquity, since it was they who provided for the church ‘enemies with whom it could come to grips’…. This narrative of world history is quite simply Hegelian: the church (or, better, Christendom) by Hart’s lights persists through the destruction of its enemies, and alongside and over against that nothingness it summons from the past. His is a dark vision in which Christendom persists, in the aftermath, as the very mediation of that nothingness. With no paganism left to slay, Hart would have the church now subsist on its rotting corpse. There is a fierce horror erupting here, appropriate for the Schmittian animus of which it partakes. This nothingness that is the residue of the ancient world – this is the true (unknown, but anticipated) enemy of Christendom precisely because it tells Hart who the church is. As he would have it, the church’s very relation to the nothingness, anticipated and disclosed by Christendom, simply is the church in the present.”
  • And for a bit of light relief: the world’s most alienating airport

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Ecclesiology: what to read?

I was extremely grateful for all your help with my recent request for readings on pneumatology. So I thought I’d ask for your help, learned friends, once again: what are the best things to read in a course on ecclesiology? It’s a first-year subject, so I’m aiming for a fairly broad range of topics (e.g. mission, liturgy, ecclesial ethics). And I’m aiming for a selection of texts from various times and traditions (I’m thinking of using Augustine’s City of God as the point of departure). Again, I’ll be selecting about 20 or 30 short readings – so any suggestions would be very welcome!

Incidentally, I was talking with a Catholic friend yesterday about course revisions. He told me that he was once appointed to teach a particular theology course – but after reading through the course outline and textbook, he decided: “I’m going to go to hell if I teach this.” I found this remark to be very instructive and very edifying.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

ET and the resurrection: an Easter sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

His initials are E.T., but he wasn’t that ET. He was an earthling, and his name was Ernst Troeltsch. And he’s a good way in to understanding misunderstanding the resurrection of Jesus – which gets us about as close as we can to understanding it! Confused? That’s the point! Let me explain.

Troeltsch was a German sociologist of religion who taught in Heidelberg during the early part of last century. Top of the theological agenda at the time was the relation between faith and history. For a century-and-a-half historians had been fine-tuning their methods over matters of research, evidence, probability, facts, interpretation, and so on, and, inevitably, they had begun to ask questions about the historical accuracy and reliability of the Bible. How can we be sure that the events recorded in the Bible actually happened, particularly when miracles are involved? How much confidence can we place in reports that had been handed down by word of mouth and, when finally written down, were far removed from the first eyewitnesses? And what about the inconsistencies that become apparent when comparing different gospel passages about the same incident? Can we base our faith on things so open to question? And even if our doubts could be allayed, how can so-called universal religious truth be based on historical events? And, further, how can what happened way back then and there, in a remote Mediterranean backwater, be relevant to us folk here and now in Swansea?

All these questions came to a head in the resurrection of Jesus, and ET – Ernst Troeltsch – was, as it were, one of the chief consultants to operate on the body in question. And what’s the saying? The surgery was successful – but the patient was lost, cut to pieces with the scalpel of the historical method itself.

But we must give ET his due: Troeltsch grasped that the real issue here for faith is not so much the findings of historical research, rather the real problem is the presuppositions of historical research, the way the whole project works. Because it turns out that the very methods with which historians ply their trade rule out in advance the claims that the church makes about the resurrection of Jesus. Look, Troeltsch said, this is how historians work, how they have to work: they can talk only about probabilities; they must locate events along chains of cause and effect; and events must always relate to other events, they must have analogies.

And it all sounds very reasonable. And it certainly works pretty well when you’re writing a history of the Reformation in Wales, or the rise of the English working class, or the origins of the First World War. But when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, what do you get? You get zilch, that’s what you get. It didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. On Troeltsch’s terms it is ruled out in principle. For faith claims that the resurrection of Jesus is unique, a one-off; that it happened out of nothing, it has no “previous”; and that, in faith, we know that out Redeemer lives.

But, yes, we must be grateful to old ET, for what he did was to sharpen the resurrection-question for Christians to the point where it tests our fundamental attitude to the modern world. The question is this: Are we to interpret the Easter event in the light of secular convictions about what constitutes “reality”, or are we to interpret secular convictions about what constitutes “reality” in the light of the Easter event? To put it most sharply: Are we going to determine what God can and cannot do on the basis of a given script, written by the Enlightenment, or are we going to allow God to determine what he can and cannot do even if it means rewriting the script? Who is in charge here? Who, in a word, is Lord?

Sceptics who argue that the tomb was empty because Jesus hadn’t actually died, or because the disciples had stolen the body, but also liberal Christians who argue that there probably was no tomb, that the body of Jesus was dumped in a common grave, and that even if there were a tomb it surely decomposed there, but not to worry, the important thing is the awesome visions the disciples had – sceptic and liberal alike view the resurrection of Jesus under the constraints of the historical method, about what can and cannot happen. And even evangelical Christians who try to explain away the inconsistencies and meld the different gospel accounts of Easter morning into a single coherent narrative, while against the sceptics and the liberals they affirm that God raised the dead Jesus, nevertheless in the very way they feel compelled to marshal the evidence, to out-argue the sceptics, they demonstrate that they too are bewitched by the constraints of modern historiography.

But as Dean Inge once famously said, if you wed yourself to the spirit of the age, it won’t be long before you are widowed. So let’s be clear. The church’s Scriptures witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. No, no one observed the raising of Jesus. And yes, there are different accounts of the seeing of Jesus. And no, a consistent harmonised account cannot be constructed from them. But that is precisely the point! If a totally history-friendly account could be constructed, then it most certainly would not be a witness to this event.

Of course everything that happened on Easter morning doesn’t fit together. Of course what has been called the “testimonies of the overwhelmed” (Helmut Thielicke) do not conform to the normal canons of evidence. Talk about astonishment, awe – and confusion! What else when you’re confronted by a reality that exceeds the limits of experience, reason and even imagination, a reality that is, in the strictest sense, indescribable, leaving language in a heap, its speakers tongue-tied. What else when you are hit by an earthquake that shatters the very foundations of human knowing, leaving scraps and fragments, and whose shock waves continue to reverberate and disturb.

The resurrection of Jesus – one can only try and fail to talk about it – one cannot be silent – one can only pray that the failure is a fortunate failure – the resurrection of Jesus is an event in history but not of history, an event with no “before”, a rupture, a fracture, an explosion, a big, bigger, biggest bang. As a new creation it can only be compared – as Paul compares it – with creation itself: “from the dead” with “out of nothing”. It certainly cannot be circumscribed by our so-called plausibility structures, or understood within our everyday frames of reference, rather it subverts these structures and frames and compels us to revise reality itself. Because, in short, as Karl Barth superbly and accurately put it, resurrection, finally, is “a paraphrase for God”, and God is ultimate and irreducible mystery, and the mystery of God is the hidden mystery of history, of the world itself.

“Getting inside the miracle” is a poem by Luci Shaw on the resurrection (the poets are always our best bet here):

        No, he is too quick. We never
        catch him at it. He is there
        sooner than our thought or prayer.
        Searching backwards, we cannot discover
        how, or get inside the miracle.
        Enough. Refrain. Observe
        a finished work…

As sure as (Easter!) eggs is eggs, the resurrection happened, but that it happened is disclosed – Jesus makes his presence known – and it can be known only in faith, which does not answer to historical method but is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So thanks, ET, for the clarification. And thank you, God, for the revelation, transcending time and space, for meeting us here and now in the risen Christ, with the word – because we are so afraid – “Shalom! Peace be with you.” Yes, and thank you that, if still with lingering doubt and confusion, nevertheless without apology, with boldness and joy, we can say this morning: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Evil overcome

“Nothingness had power over the creature…. But it was impotent against the God who humbled himself, and himself became a creature, and thus exposed himself to its power and resisted it. Nothingness could not master this victim. It could neither endure nor bear the presence of God in the flesh. It met with a prey which it could not match and by which it could only be destroyed as it tried to swallow it. The fullness of the grace which God showed to his creature by himself becoming a threatened, even ruined and lost creature, was its undoing.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, 362.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One of the greatest artistic representations of Christ’s resurrection is Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection in Palazzo Communale of Borgo, Sansepolcro in Tuscany:

Rowan Williams’ new collection, Headwaters (Perpetua 2008), includes a poem about this painting, entitled “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro”. Here’s an excerpt:

So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like drops
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

An Easter icon

A guest-post by Ann Chapin (click the image to enlarge)

Thursday 9 April 2009

The trial of Jesus: a Maundy Thursday sermon

A sermon by Douglas Harink

Text: John 18-19

In the real world, in the big scheme of scheme of things, what did Jesus achieve, really? Think about it.

If we scan over Jesus’ life and deeds from the time of his baptism to the day of his crucifixion what real change in history did he bring about. The people he healed from diseases sooner or later became ill or old, and died. Even Lazarus whom he raised from the dead was at some later time dead and buried again, and his decaying body began to stink again. Those crowds to whom Jesus gave bread and fish to eat – what good was it to them? They became hungry again the very next day. The huxters and profiteers which he drove out of the temple one day – they just returned the next day to continue exploiting the poor. Where is the new economic order? Those who were rulers in Jerusalem and those who were rulers in Rome were not shaken from their seats of power. The systems they put in place and promoted and protected remained unchanged, despite his criticism of them. Where is the new world order of justice and peace for all?

There was in fact a moment when Jesus could have made a “real” difference, a brief moment when history was on his side, or he was on the side of history, and maybe everything might have been different. One day he rode into the royal city of Jerusalem, the city of the great king, and was royally hailed and hosannahed by the crowds as the one who would change everything, at least for the Jews who suffered under the Romans, but maybe for the whole world too. The power to overthrow the oppressor was at that moment his. The power to deliver his people from bondage was at that moment his. The power to bring about a just social and economic order was at that moment his. History was his for the making. He needed only to take control of its reins, to steer it to the glorious goal for which his people yearned – for which he himself yearned.

But he didn’t. Not even close! No sooner was Jesus crowned the Coming Great Messiah by a massive democratic upsurge, than he began to do everything he should not have done if he truly was the Coming One. He seems to have set himself up for the violent opposition; he seems to have just handed himself over to the powers; he seems to have simply given up control to those who really should not have it at all – because look, after all, at the destructive and oppressive mess they have made of it.

And so, Jesus is arrested, and put on trial – and who knows the end that all of that will come to? Well… we do, don’t we. And so, in the real world, in the big scheme of things, in terms of bringing about health and welfare and justice and peace for all, Jesus’ mediocre messianic mission comes a miserable end. What, really, did he achieve anyway?

But wait a minute! Why does Jesus step forward without hesitation when the police and soldiers come to ask for him and arrest him, and boldly declare, “I am he”? Why do the armed men fall to the ground, and not he? And why does he stand without fear before the high priest and hide nothing of what he has been up to from him? Why does he not flinch when one of the officers of the peace strikes him hard on the face? And the crown of thorns and the purple robe and the wooden sceptre that the soldiers dress Jesus up in – why is that he in fact looks strangely and truly royal in them? And why is it so obvious that the joke is really on the mocking soldiers, and not on him?

And why does Jesus face the governing authority as an equal, or more than an equal, and put the governor’s questions right back to him? Why does Jesus claim to possess an authority and sovereignty and government in himself which the real-world governor seems to know nothing about – an authority which is not established and maintained by swords and guns and tanks and bombs? After all, doesn’t this governor, this Pilate, represent the only power and sovereignty that matters in the real world of economics and politics and law, the supreme power to control history and its outcomes, the power to decide who gets bread and who doesn’t, the power to bind and free, the power to determine who lives and who dies. Pilate himself declares to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Why is it that Jesus utters no demand for justice, no plea that his cause be heard, no call for witnesses to testify on his behalf? And why does he so not look or act like a victim? Who is this man – in reality? Everything is not as it seems.

Wait a minute! What if nothing is as it seems?

What if health is not finally about a balanced diet and lots of exercise, one bowel movement per day, and a regular visit to the doctor? What if it looks like sickness?

And what if life is not finally about getting a few more pain-free years added to my short time, whether through a good drug plan, or a medical miracle, or even a temporary resurrection by Jesus himself? What if it looks like death?

And what if truth is not finally about facts and claims and arguments and justifications and trumping and winning? What if it looks like silence?

And what if justice is not finally about making sure everyone gets an equal share of the goods, even though there’s barely enough to go around, and no-one comes out ahead? What if it looks like giving away everything I have?

And what if making history is not the ability to bring about the great and glorious kingdom of justice, liberty and peace for all, even if it requires that, through my power, one, or a few, or even very many have to sacrifice themselves or be sacrificed to get to that goal, which we all desire? What if making history looks like stripping to the waist, kneeling down, and scraping sod and mud and blood from someone’s feet?

And what if power is not the right to determine who eats and who doesn’t, who stays in prison and who goes free, who is executed and who gets to live? What if power looks like mercy all the way down?

Wait a minute! What if nothing is as it seems? The so-called “real world” is starting to spin. Am I crazy? Is there something I don’t know? Is the Real World anything but what I thought it was?

What if nothing is as it seems? What if Jesus is not on trial at all? What if those crying out “Crucify him!” are the ones on trial? What if those who are hitting him, and flogging him, and mocking him, and driving in the nails are the ones on trial? What if the high priest of the Jews is on trial? What if the Roman governor is on trial? What if I am on trial? What if you are on trial?

Wait a minute! What if … What if the Real is that bloody, suffocating body of human flesh now hanging there, nailed to a cross? What if the Real is that water and that blood spilling out there from his wounded side, being soaked up by the ground?


Wednesday 8 April 2009

Alfred Hitchcock, the Church, and the silence of Jesus

A post by Scott Stephens (a longer version of a piece published this week in Eureka Street)

The films of Alfred Hitchcock are often regarded as a master class on the grotesqueries of Western society. To be sure, The Birds (1963), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), not to mention the lesser known Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948) and even Marnie (1964), all point to a kind of monstrous underbelly that disrupts the tranquility of everyday life. But it was with his first attempt at cinematic realism, in an attempt to depict the true story of a wrongfully accused man, that Hitchcock managed to create a horror far worse than any Norman Bates.

In The Wrong Man (1956), Manny Balestrero (played by Henry Fonda) is arrested in an unfortunate instance of mistaken identity, and, with little or no explanation, is quickly arraigned on charges of armed robbery. The central sequence of the film follows Manny as he is led through the opaque, impersonal legal apparatus that will determine his fate.

In a particularly poignant moment, Manny, his face still fixed in a look of terrified bewilderment, clutches a silver crucifix and silently prays. All the while, lawyers spew their jargon-laden bile at one another, as the disinterested jury talk among themselves. The entire courtroom scene appears to Manny as simultaneously all-powerful and completely impersonal. It is in control of his life, and it couldn’t care less. And that’s the obscenity of the entire ordeal. There is no slick dialogue or high courtroom drama in The Wrong Man – just the brutal enactment of an insane system that is convinced of its own rectitude.

While it might seem a little strange to invoke Hitchcock at Easter, I’d nevertheless suggest that we can see a similar horror at work in the trial of Jesus. The Gospel narratives depict Jesus as being paraded, like some freak at a carnival, before Pilate and then Herod, both of whom taunt and goad Jesus to accept their supposed power over him and thus to join in their insanity. They want Jesus to be part of their world, to quiver before them, or at least to rage against them. But instead, Jesus remains silent. And like Manny Balestrero’s bewildered innocence, Jesus’ silence has the effect of throwing the madness of his would-be judges into the sharpest relief. His refusal to join in their grotesque chirade creates the space, the possibility of a freedom that was unimaginable to all those freedom-fighters who tried to oppose violence with violence.

In his remarkable book, Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams suggests that what we mean when we speak of God’s transcendence ought thus to be refracted through what he calls the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of Jesus’ silence before his accusers.

‘If we are really to have our language about the transcendence – the sheer, unimaginable differentness – of God recreated, it must be by the emptying out of all we thought we knew about it, the emptying out of practically all we normally mean by greatness. No more about the lofty distance of God, the sovereignty that involves control over all circumstances: God’s “I am” can only be heard for what it really is when it has no trace of human power left to it.’

It is in this way that Jesus’ silence could begin shaping the practice of the Church. To participate in Jesus’ silence would mean to commit ourselves afresh to an alternative, non-instrumental mode of communal life. It would require that we abandon that perverse moral calculus that implicitly – and, at times, even explicitly – determines what is worthwhile and useful and constructive in Western society.

That is how I understand Stanley Hauerwas’ oft cited axiom: that the first task of the Church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world. In other words, the sheer difference of the Church’s common life – what one might call our sacramentality – represents a kind of refusal to convey upon our given social, political and economic structures any moral legitimacy. It stands for the refusal to resign itself to the soulless Realpolitik that now structures and defines our societal sanity.

I doubt that there has ever been a more important time for the Church’s practice to be marked by a kind of sacred uselessness, or, to give it its more biblical designation, by charity. For charity, as the very ethical substance of the Church, would demand that the Church doesn’t ‘function’ in the way that the myriad of our state apparatuses ‘function’. Above all, it would prevent it from succumbing to the temptation to gain a place among the other state-sanctioned service providers, and thereby be required to sell its soul in exchange for recognition and federal funding. I’d contend that any such a Faustian pact with the state would constitute buying into the insanity, the pervasive nihilism that has progressively emptied our civil institutions of their capacity to act with compassion and to achieve the Good.

Like Jesus’ silence, the Church’s refusal to participate in the state’s normalized madness would go a long way toward removing the quasi-moral veneer, the unquestioned confidence in its own rectitude, whereby the state confers upon itself and its functionaries the power to pronounce any alternative as ‘mad’, abusive, extreme, impractical, or (worst of all) not conforming to ‘best practice’. Thus confronted by the sheer difference, the ‘obstinate uselessness’ of the Church’s charity, the monstrous character of our state and civil institutions might finally become clear: from the institutionalized ennui and decrepitude of federally funded disability services, to the sterile self-righteousness of the Family Law Court; from the banal instrumentalization of higher education, to the cynical politicization of indigenous affairs.

And all this in the hope that the God who vindicated Jesus’ silence, who raised the Crucified from death, would breath fresh life into a world obsessed with its own nullification.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Michel de Montaigne: the first blogger

Did you know that the 16th-century French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first blogger? He describes the experience of blogging very accurately:

“When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost; for, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere…. Recently I retired to my estate, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself….

“But I find … that on the contrary [my mind] bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.”

—Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” in On Friendship (Penguin 2004), 69-70.

Speak to me only with your eyes

Sunday 5 April 2009

Led Zeppelin IV: a theological meditation

A recent comment raised the question of the best albums of all time – which got me thinking about Led Zeppelin IV, certainly one of the greatest and most enduring albums ever recorded. It is still one of my own favourite albums – but I came to it by a rather unusual route.

In the church circles where I grew up, rock and roll was regarded with considerable suspicion. Some time in the early 90s (I was a teenager at the time), I remember a youth pastor preaching against the evils of rock music: he informed us that Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven” contained hidden subliminal messages (about drugs, Satan, sex, etc.), which can be discerned not only when the song is played backwards, but also when a person hears the song under the influence of marijuana.

Intrigued and hopeful, me and my Christian friends hurried off to put this theory to the test: and so we sat down together, with the album in one hand and a bag of weed in the other, eager to experience those alluring occult messages.

It was in this way that the strange world of Led Zeppelin IV began to open itself to me. The album conjured up a world of forests and magic and spirits, of gods and fertility rites and the dark secret powers of the earth. There was, as Erik Davis puts it in his recent book on Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum 2005), a kind of “wayward tantric magic” in their music (p. 53). We were invited to enter into the mysteries of primitive ritual, to “dance in the dark of night, sing to the morning light.” The songs invited us to re-imagine a long forgotten world, to turn away from the dominance of Christian-Western rationality towards the sensual pagan magic of another time and place: “Tired eyes in the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow.”

The songs promised a deep synthesis of the erotic and the religious, a convergence of drugs and mysticism, the awakening of a strange but authentic “reason” which transcends the stifling limits of modernity, so dominated by technology and utility. As the magnificent song “Stairway to Heaven” puts it:

        And it’s whispered that soon
        If we all call the tune
        Then the piper will lead us to reason
        And a new day will dawn
        For those who stand long
        And the forests will echo with laughter.

Here, it is the pagan god Pan (that horned and horny deity who was one of the main classical sources behind Christian representations of the devil) who leads us out from the darkness of modernity into the soft eerie light of a new age. This return of pagan magic and sensuality promises to restore a primal balance to our disturbed and fragmented world: “the magic runes are writ in gold, to bring the balance back.”

Throughout the album, this recovery of primal balance focuses especially on the theme of the rediscovery of Goddess-devotion. “There walks a Lady we all know, who shines a light and wants to show.” Or in the words of the later song “Down by the Seaside”: “show your love for Lady Nature, and she will come back again.” Erik Davis observes that Led Zeppelin IV wrestles with the desire to both serve and master the sacred feminine; the album’s answer to this dilemma “is clear and pagan: one honors the Goddess by bringing the balance back, the lost harmony of human labor and the great good earth” (Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, pp. 103-4).

For those of us reared on the Bible and the imaginative resources of Christian tradition, the album’s pagan-sexual-telluric world seemed exciting and alluringly exotic. Our youth pastor was surely right to feel uneasy about a song like “Stairway to Heaven” – after all, this song was nothing less than a breathtakingly beautiful challenge to the entire imaginative world of Christian faith. (I take it that this is the case in spite of the fact that Led Zeppelin’s lyrics were deeply influenced by the Christian writer J. R. R. Tolkien: where Tolkien used mythology to re-imagine the world Christianly, Led Zeppelin used Tolkien to re-imagine the world paganly.)

If Led Zeppelin IV posed a challenge to Christian imagination, then it might seem that the album won the contest. The kind of mythology represented in the album has penetrated deeply into our popular culture. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll find entire shelves devoted to these themes: nostalgia for a state of primal innocence; the recovery of a deep primordial harmony between humans and the earth; reverence for the sacred feminine; romantic idealisation of the country over the city; the quest to awaken a dormant inner self; and suspicion of those institutions in which “Western rationality” is embodied and transmitted.

Significantly, you’ll find all these themes not only in The Da Vinci Code or New Age self-help manuals. Efforts in contemporary theology and liturgical renewal are often guided by precisely the same values and commitments. Just think of those well-meaning liturgical experiments in which God is invoked as the Great Mother; in which Christ is identified as the enlightening influence of Sophia; in which the prayers and hymns celebrate (even while mourning the loss of) our primordial rootedness in the earth; in which practices of eastern meditation are uncritically synthesised with traditional liturgical practices. Or just think of those contemporary theologies in which Christian teaching is calmly absorbed under the larger rubric of “spirituality” – as though doctrines of grace and Christ and salvation can be translated without remainder into discourse about individual fulfilment or the inner life of the soul.

In short, the vision of Led Zeppelin IV has been realised not only in contemporary pop culture, but in a good deal of contemporary church culture too. But where Led Zeppelin promised a renewed world and a deeper, richer human experience in the world, the most striking thing about contemporary popular spirituality (and likewise much contemporary Christian spirituality) is its extraordinary superficiality, its willingness to settle for banalities and trite pre-packaged experiences in lieu of any deep reflection on the world or on the place of humans within it. Spirituality is a commodity: something to be purchased, consumed and subsequently discarded by the privileged classes (whose social position gives them the leisure to cultivate the requisite spiritual anxiety).

From today’s vantage point, then, we might say that the most (unintendedly) prescient lines in Led Zeppelin IV were not from “The Battle of Evermore” or “Stairway to Heaven,” but from the autobiographical song “Going to California”:

        Made up my mind to make a new start
        Going to California with an aching in my heart.

For all its sweeping grandeur and “forceful telluric energies” (Erik Davis, p. 54), the spiritual vision of Led Zeppelin leads ultimately here: not back to the forests, but to – California! The mysteries of earth, of magic, of sensual Lady Nature, of gods who play their music in the woods – all this finds its historical realisation in the Hollywood spiritual therapist, with her easy slogans, her bright smiling face on glitzy book covers, her wealthy and rapaciously unhappy clientele.

Led Zeppelin IV is still one of my favourite albums, and I listen to it very often. I enjoy as much as anyone the album’s profoundly imagined world, its absorbing nostalgia, its alluring occult invitation: “the piper’s calling you to join him.” I understand this to be a serious invitation – and thus as an invitation to be rejected.

Those churches who hope today to find sources of renewal and enrichment in a quasi-pagan earth mysticism would do well to ponder the question whether there can be any easy synthesis between these two imagined worlds; whether there is not a more radical gulf between Christianity and the culture of therapeutic spirituality; whether the “stairway to heaven” is not ultimately a descent into the banality and claustrophobic boredom of the inner self.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Jesus and the immanent Trinity

“If God is neither a quasi-Hegelian organizing principle, nor an abstract postulate, nor yet an agent among other agents, what is to be said of him? Christian practice begins to answer that question by repeating the story of Jesus: what is to be said of God is that Jesus of Nazareth was born, ministered in such and such a way, died in such and such a way, and was raised from death. This is an odd statement, in that it treats the narrative of a human being as predicated of a substance or subject which is God…. God is what is constitutive of the particular identity of Jesus; that is what can be said of him, and it is what the homoousion of Nicaea endeavoured to say…. The ‘essential’ or ‘immanent’ Trinity can finally be characterized only as that which makes this life (and death and resurrection) possible and intelligible.”

—Rowan Williams, “Trinity and Ontology,” in Christ, Ethics and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon, ed. Kenneth Surin (Cambridge UP, 1989), 79-80, 83.


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