Sunday 29 November 2009

"Be very afraid?" An advent sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 27 November 2009

Summer holiday fiction list

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

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

Monday 23 November 2009

Covenant precedes creation

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

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

Sunday 22 November 2009

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

Friday 20 November 2009

Holy Spirit: readings and poems

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

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

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

1. Knowing the Spirit

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

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Scammer ping pong: how to play with an email scammer

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

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


Dear Nicholas,

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

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


Hi Nicholas,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 12 November 2009

Happy birthday, Edward Schillebeeckx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 9 November 2009

Mirabile dictu! (Latin for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!")

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

Mirabile dictu!

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

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

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


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


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


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

Friday 6 November 2009

Ask Hauerwas a question

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

I think my wife's a Calvinist

Today I bring you three fantastic theologico-musical videos:

I Think My Wife's a Calvinist

Calvin Girl

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

Thursday 5 November 2009

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Apocalyptic gospel: J. Louis Martyn on Galatians

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 2 November 2009

I'm not able, I'm just Cain

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


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