Sunday 31 January 2010

Writing theology with Marilynne Robinson

The Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton is holding an intensive three-week residential workshop with Marilynne Robinson, for theologians who want to write for wider readerships. The workshop runs from 20 June through 10 July 2010. Applications are invited from tenured and tenure-track scholars in any of the theological disciplines: full details here. Robinson explains the purpose of the workshop:

“Theology has been the mediator of the primary literature of faith since antiquity. The writers of the psalms, the prophets, the Apostle Paul all interpret core belief — that God is One, the Creator of heaven and earth, and that he has made humankind in his image. Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin each gave intellectual, social and artistic form to modes of Christian life which without them are hardly to be imagined. Lately the practice of this ancient tradition has receded into the academy and learned the idiom of specialization, leaving religion increasingly vulnerable to the charge, and the fact, of vacuousness. We will consider the impulse to think and write theologically, always in light of the intrinsic and profound significance of theology to the life of faith and the world of thought.”
This is a great opportunity to work with one of the world's finest writers. In my view, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are the two great American novels of the past decade. And Robinson is also a vivid and incisive theological writer, as her remarkable essays in The Death of Adam attest.

So anyway, you might like to get along to this great workshop. If I could hitchhike from Sydney to New Jersey, I'd be there myself, hauling my old typewriter across the country like Jack Kerouac with his dirty coat and 100-foot scroll.

Friday 29 January 2010

Peacemaking and Afghanistan: another look at Obama's Nobel Prize address

A guest-post by Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary

The recent discussion of President Obama’s Nobel Prize Address focused on his use of just war and realism to justify the Afghan War. He did mention “just war” three times. But he emphasized “just peace” four times. He mentioned only three criteria of just war, but all ten practices of just peacemaking.

His theme: “No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy…. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago… ‘a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature, but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.’” He asked: “What might these practical steps be?”

Just peacemaking is a new ethic of peace and war. It names ten practical steps that work to make peace, and calls on us to prod governments to take those steps. This is set forth in the book, Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press 2008). The consensus of thirty scholars, this book is based on the plain truth that it makes no sense to spend our time debating whether we approve of a war as just, if we don’t also debate the practices that work to prevent war. To debate that, we need to know the practices that have proven to work in making peace. What is truly remarkable is that now we have a president who understands the practices of just peacemaking, and advocates them in a major international address.

The thirty authors who reached consensus on just peacemaking include both just war theorists and pacifists. We don’t agree on whether war is sometimes justified or not. Not only the pacifists, but many just war theorists think the Afghan War is not justified; the Taliban didn’t attack the Twin Towers or any other nation; their focus is local. They always defeat foreign occupiers.

But we all agree on the ten practices that prevent many wars, and does Obama. If we miss his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking, we'll miss his intention, and so miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope. Obama is nothing if he is not about giving reason to hope for something better. He concluded his address: “For all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate.”

One practice of just peacemaking is to acknowledge our own complicity in conflict and injustice. Obama began: “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated…. I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.” And he acknowledged the threats of terrorism, new technologies of war, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the fact that though wars between nations have decreased dramatically, wars within nations still take many lives. Thus he pulled the thorn of controversy over his award and demonstrated the humility and respect that are keys to peacemaking.

Just peacemaking says talking and practicing conflict resolution with enemies, even enemies we have strong disagreements with, often solves problems better than war does. Obama said: Nixon met with Mao, despite Mao’s ordering the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, “and it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.” Pope John Paul engaged with Poland, and it created space for the Catholic church, and for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement that toppled the dictatorship. Ronald Reagan talked with Gorbachev, and it resulted in arms control, in empowering dissidents throughout Eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union coming to a peaceful end. So we should talk with North Korea and Iran, and the dictatorial government of Burma, in search of human rights for their people, despite strong disagreements with those governments.

Obama praised the just peacemaking practice of nonviolent direct action, practiced by Gandhi and King, very personally. “As someone who stands here as a living testimony to Dr King’s work, I am living testimony to the force of non-violence.” He praised Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma, and the nonviolent demonstrators in Iran: “It is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements… have us on their side.”

Throughout the address, he argued for international cooperation. Evidence in the book, Just Peacemaking, says nations that engage in international cooperation experience war less often. Obama said of his commitment to international cooperation: “That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanimo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Convention.” No nation “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.”

Supporting the UN, too, decreases wars. Obama reminded us that the United States led in creating the United Nations, and “there has been no Third World War.” Throughout, he argued for the just peacemaking practice of supporting human rights. He supported international (not unilateral) sanctions and humanitarian intervention for the sake of human rights.

Furthermore, “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights—it must encompass economic security and opportunity…. For true peace is not just freedom from fear; but freedom from want.” He gave credit to the Marshall Plan and economic development in Europe for helping prevent World War Three.

And encouraging the spread of democracy spreads peacemaking. Only when Europe achieved democracy did it achieve peace, Obama said. As just peacemaking points out, though democracies may do wrong, and sometimes fight or support wars, they do not send their troops to make wars against other democracies. Obama pointed out that “America has never fought a war against a democracy.”

Reducing offensive weapons is a practice of just peacemaking. Obama committed himself to working with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons, and “to work toward a world without them.” Just peacemaking also calls for supporting grass-roots groups that work for peacemaking. Obama gave his support to the movements of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Gandhi, King, Mandela, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland. (I was there in East Germany. Bitterfeld story. Hans Modrow addressing Parliament. I wept.)

The independent initiatives he commended were taken by “those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics.” He concluded by acknowledging realism, and then advocated the practical work of just peacemaking: “Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace…. That’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on earth.”

Remarkable! Maybe we have a just peacemaking president. The Nobel Prize Committee thinks we do. I hope they prove right. Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up being remembered as the Afghan War President.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Obama and Afghanistan: the poverty of Niebuhrian ethics

by Kim Fabricius (originally printed in this month's Reform magazine, as a response to Ron Buford)

Jesus said, “Love your Niebuhr.” Or so Ron Buford would have us believe in his standing ovation for Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam – oops, I mean Afghanistan. (Sorry about that: we Americans have a lousy sense of world geography, not to mention an inexhaustible ignorance about regional cultures and histories. Which is why wherever our expeditionary forces go, even as they blow away one demon, there are always plenty more to take its place). Certainly, as Mr Buford notes, Obama loves his Niebuhr – his Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the president liberally deployed the language of the influential American theologian.

The appeal of Niebuhr’s social ethics is clear: it’s the Yankee pragmatism and “realism”. But its rich pickings for Obama cannot disguise its profound theological poverty. A loyal two-kingdoms Lutheran, Niebuhr was completely candid that the ethics of Jesus has no moral purchase in the realm of power politics.

That the gospel redefines what is “real”, and what is possible and practical; that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus has actually inaugurated the eschatological transformation of the world; and that the Holy Spirit is now present and active in bringing God’s new creation to perfection – these facts of faith simply do not factor in the moral calculus of Niebuhr’s finally quite pagan and pessimistic reading of geopolitics. Hence the cynical reduction of the option for Christians, in the face of evil rulers, repeated by Mr Buford, to either blessing US military interventions or “doing nothing”. As if the way of non-violence were unreal, as if radical pacifists were political layabouts! On the contrary, as Niebuhr’s theological nemesis, the radical Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder, acutely observed, it is not the wielders of swords but the bearers of crosses who are ultimately “working with the grain of the universe.”

Of course even on the grounds of Niebuhrian realism the war in Afghanistan is widely, expertly contested as not only unjust but also tragically self-defeating. Obama’s Vietnam? Interestingly, Niebuhr himself, always ambivalent about President Johnson’s war in southeast Asia, ultimately confessed, in 1967, that “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation.” However the essential theological point for Christians is this. The central premise of Niebuhr’s social ethics is that the nation is the bearer of history. But the premise is false (a point made by Lawrence Moore in his splendid January Bible study on the “wilderness”). According to the New Testament, it is the church, the body of Christ, which transcends all national identities and loyalties; the church, however impotent it may seem, that is the true bearer of history. Unsurprisingly, Niebuhr is deafeningly silent on the subject of ecclesiology. For Mr Buford too, it would seem, the church is here, not to be a counter-political community, but, at best, to tweak the conscience of the state.

Even when Caesar is a good guy – and I take Obama to be a good guy, despite his idleness over Israel and his hyperactivity in Afghanistan – it is always a bad idea for the church to hitch its wagon to his military-industrial express, and to concede that, when push comes to shove, Christians may have to behave in ways that contradict the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And there you have the ultimate tragedy of mainstream American Christianity, liberal as well as conservative: it thinks it can serve two masters. In that respect, even Obama remains mesmerised by the heathen myth of American exceptionalism.

Monday 25 January 2010

Earn more than your professors: become a student!

LeRon Shults has now posted the full details for the University of Agder's new PhD scholarships in theology. Recipients of the scholarship will be employed by the University for three years and will receive a salary of approximately 353,200 kroner (about US$61,000) per year, as well as office space, travel funds, contributions to a pension, etc. Applications close 15 April – LeRon has all the details.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Awards in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion

The St Thomas Philosophy of Religion Project has announced two prizes (both funded by Templeton) for work in the philosophy of religion and/or philosophical theology:

1. The 2009 Excellence in Philosophy of Religion Prize attempts to identify the three best papers published in 2009 in the areas of philosophy of religion or philosophical theology. A panel of three expert reviewers will select three winners. Each winner will receive an award of $2000. The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2010.

2. The C. S. Lewis Prize recognizes the best recent book in the philosophy of religion or philosophical theology written for a general audience. A panel of three expert reviewers will select one first place winner, who will receive a $15,000 prize, and one second place winner, who will receive a $7,500 prize.

Full details here.

Sunday 17 January 2010

St. Nowhere

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

In the 1980s there was an influential American medical drama / black comedy set in a Boston hospital, which served patients turned away from more prestigious institutions. The show had a cutting social edge that gestured towards what a proper health service might look like. It was called St. Elsewhere. This sermon is not about a medical hospital. It is, however, a picture of a hospital of sorts, the kind for sin-sick souls called the church, and this particular church has a similar name – St. Nowhere – and it too gestures towards what a proper church might look like.

Where is St. Nowhere? Well, … nowhere – or at least in Nowhere Land, a land known for its hills and sheep, its poetry and song, its cockles and cawl, a land often overlooked by its larger, more prestigious neighbour. So St. Nowhere was a good and fitting name for this church. It wasn’t called The Here-It-Is Church, or The Where-It’s-At Church, just, modestly, St. Nowhere. It’s a funny name, no doubt, but that’s because the folk at St. Nowhere would rather their church had no name at all: “a church with no name,” they said, “rather like God, who refused to give his name to Moses, because labels are libels.”

What kind of church was St. Nowhere? It was, er, just a church. “The church is here so that there can be Christians,” the people said, “Christians aren’t here so that there can be a church. We don’t market ourselves. We are not vendors of spiritual goods, nor providers of a religious service, nor masseurs of the so-called ‘inner’ life. We are here to witness, by the way we live the whole of our lives, to God’s peaceable realm among the nations, to the good news of God drawing near in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We are here as the door of the kingdom, as a sign of welcome, inviting people into faith and friendship with Jesus himself. We are not into ‘success’, or even ‘growth’ as such, we are simply into calling people together to be apprentices of the Master, who teaches us how to be human. The main coursework – Humanity 101-102 – is the Sermon on the Mount.”

What denomination was St. Nowhere? I’ll give you a hint. Just off the sanctuary there was a chapel, the “Chapel of Saints” it was called, because around its circular interior there were portraits, icons if you like, of the “saints”, that is to say disciples down the ages who took the practice of faith seriously. From the New Testament church there were Stephen and Silas, Bartimaeus and Cornelius, as well as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Priscilla. Irenaeus, Basil, and Augustine were there from the early continental, eastern, and African churches. There too were the hermit Anthony and the monastic Benedict. From the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas, and also Julian of Norwich and Hildegarde of Bingen. From the Reformation, Luther and Calvin and the Anabaptist Menno Simons. From the eighteenth century, John Wesley was there, and so too were Howell Harries and Daniel Rowlands. And from the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. There were many others too. And in the last frame – odd, I admit, and make of it what you will – there was a mirror, where one would pause for “reflection” (if you catch my drift).

Another interesting feature of St. Nowhere was this: it had no walls. How they managed in the winter I don’t know, but no one was ever heard to complain of the cold. But fancy that – a church without walls! All and sundry could – and did – just walk in off the street, and then – sometimes sooner, sometimes later – walk out onto the streets again. “When the worship ends,” they said, “the service begins.” To save souls? “That’s one way of putting it,” they said, “but we prefer the expression of Jesus: to bring life, life in all its fullness.” The mad and the bad, the disabled and the deviant, the grey and the gay – they were particularly drawn to St. Nowhere. “A church with strict boundaries,” they said, “is like a house with a burglar alarm: anyone unscrupulous enough will probably find a way to break in, but people who have mislaid the key are defeated” (Helen Oppenheimer). Of course life was not easy at St. Nowhere, indeed it was often quite conflicted. But the folk there believed that the church is “the place where the people you least want to live with live there too” (Henri Nouwen).

Many Christians in the area shook their heads at St. Nowhere. They said that it wasn’t “Bible-based”, that it was too “political”, that it didn’t “meet people’s felt needs”, that it lacked an “identity”. These reproaches made the people at St. Nowhere smile. They replied, “In the Bible God is up to his ears in politics, and the church engages the state as one public engaging another public, not as some private sector facing the domain of government. Nor is ‘self-fulfilment’ a biblical theme, rather the human issue is always ‘self-denial’. For churches, like people, those that try keeping their identity will lose it, while those who risk losing their identity, for the sake of the gospel, will find it. We may not know who we are, but we know that we are God’s. We may not know what we will be, but we know that we will be like Jesus.”

As for St. Nowhere’s worship… It began at 10:30, though not really, because, the people at St. Nowhere would tell you, worship never begins, worship has always already begun – we enter the unceasing praise of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven – and so, in a very real sense, we are always late for worship. But in the 10:30 slot, what was worship at St. Nowhere like? It was formal and informal, serious and amusing, celebratory and contemplative, comforting and challenging. Someone always presided, but she acted neither as manager, nor a cheerleader, but rather as a catalyst in an ongoing experiment. “Worship is a ‘laboratory of the Spirit’ (R. S. Thomas),” the people said – and they added, “Explosions are to be expected.”

If you asked them why they worship God, they would answer, “What a silly question! We worship God because God is to be worshipped.” If asked what they get out of worship, they would answer, “That’s not the point: the question is ‘What do you bring to worship?’ Worship is not a utility but an offering, an economy of grace that interrupts the cycles of production and consumption by which the world lives. Which is why the collection is not just fund-raising but a critique of wealth and a judgement on greed. Not ‘materialism’, mind,” they hastened to add. “We are, in fact, a very materialistic church, and we like to eat and drink: we regularly consume the body of Christ, but while others drink to forget, we drink to remember.” Finally, if asked if God is pleased with their worship, they would say, “That all depends – depends on whether, with the prophet Amos, it leads to justice rolling down like Niagara Falls, and peace spilling over like the Mississippi in flood.”

And St. Nowhere’s theology? “You can’t pin us down,” the people would insist. “Or rather you can pin us down in the one place our Lord himself got pinned down: on the cross. It is only at this place of greatest danger that we are, paradoxically, theologically safe, where we are both broken and renewed. We have our convictions, but we walk by faith, not by sight. When we have doubts, God forgive us; when we don’t have doubts – God forgive us even more! After all, a deity who is bound to confirm our own opinions would be the god of a ventriloquist, but the God of the cross is free. God has a human face, but God is also cosmic mystery. And God is a playful God – and his favourite game is hide-and-seek – now here, now there, leaving traces, dropping clues, casting shadows, then hurrying on just as we catch up and calling back, ‘Follow me!’” But fancy that – the people at St. Nowhere actually enjoyed thinking, thinking about God together, and no issue was beyond discussion, ecclesiastical silence and denial yet another frontier that was, yes, “crossed”.

What more can I say about St. Nowhere and its people? Touched by grace, they lived with gratitude. Richly blessed, they rejoiced with gusto. Put under pressure, they acted with patience. Inundated with lies, they spoke the truth. Confronted with hatred, they responded with love. Tempted by violence and vengeance, they practiced peace and exercised mercy. They laughed a lot – “It’s our ‘way of crossing ourselves’” (Karl-Josef Kushel); they cried a lot too – “It’s our way of sharing people’s pain and powerlessness.” They would weep a lot over a tragedy like Haiti.

So there is a thumbnail sketch of St. Nowhere. Utopian – or what! If I have a prayer for this Week of Prayer, it is simply that St. Nowhere might be St. Somewhere, that the church-in-waiting that all churches are may be conformed to the church that we are destined, by grace, to become.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Are the gospels reliable? A letter to a young inquirer

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

Dear N.,

Very good to hear from you with your interesting dreams and questions. I think your questions represent those that many have today. I don't know if I can answer them to your satisfaction, but here is how I look at them myself.

You write: "I don't think there is a good reason to believe in Jesus as the Christ because the accounts of him are historically non-convincing for two reasons (a) these are not his accounts but accounts of him from flawed men..."

This comment seems to assume that we cannot believe in Jesus without "good reasons" and without evidence that is "historically reliable". It also seems to assume that we would be better off with writings directly from Jesus himself rather than from his followers, who were flawed like the rest of us. I can see that this line of thinking seems reasonable. I don't think it is sufficient, however.

First, there is the question of what it would be "reasonable" for someone to believe. Although good reasons can actually be given of the kind you seem to be seeking (more on that in a moment), I don't think any such reasons, by themselves, would ever be enough for someone to have faith in Christ. This is a very important point to which I will need to return, because it has to do with the nature of faith. Here I am commenting somewhat more on the nature of reason. Even the best of reasons, I am saying, would be insufficient. That is because believing in Christ is not just the same as believing that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Although there is certainly an element of historical fact at stake in Christian belief, knowledge of historical facts is knowledge of a particular kind. It never gets us beyond the weighing of probabilities. Christian belief does not fall into that category. It does not finally come down to probability assessments.

Even if we had documents written by Jesus himself, we would still need to go well beyond mere historical "probabilities" if we were to commit our lives to him as our Lord and Savior, in life and in death, which is what the gospel says is required of us. (And required of us unconditionally.)

Second, at the level of historical probabilities, I think the Christian faith has to meet a minimal standard, but only a minimal standard. Although it involves historical elements, faith also involves elements that do not fit neatly into the category of "history". The historical aspects are not unimportant, however.

The minimal standard that needs to be met is that these historical aspects or (often implicit) historical claims cannot be shown to have been decisively disproved. If it could be shown, for example, that Jesus did not die on a cross but instead in an old age home in Palestine or that his body still lies a-mouldering in the tomb, I think that would count as decisive disproof. I think it is reasonable to conclude, however, that attempts of this kind, which over the last 250 years have been legion, have not been successful.

Christ's resurrection could theoretically be disproved by historical evidence, but it could not be proven on historical grounds alone, because, in the nature of the case, it confronts us with something more than a merely historical claim — something much more terrifying and radical.

In the end I think the historical evidence remains ambiguous and inconclusive, taken as a whole. There is not a lot of data to go on, which allows the evidence to be read either positively or negatively. Positively, certain lines of plausibility can be established for the "factual" claims of the gospel on historical grounds, but negatively, on the other hand, these lines of reasoning are always open to challenge and doubt. There is, again, not enough evidence to work with one way or the other that would allow us to come to unshakable historical conclusions.

Nevertheless, a strong historical case can indeed be made in favor of Christ's resurrection, for example, but not one that I think is beyond "reasonable" doubt. Reason, in any case, reaches its categorical limit here. Affirming or denying Christ's resurrection — or better, affirming or denying the Risen Christ — is well beyond the competency of mere reason.

Let me mention two recent scholarly works, one by Richard Bauckham, the other by N. T. Wright. In his very intriguing book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008, 540 pp.), Bauckham makes a strong case for the general reliability of the gospels. I don't think the case is as iron-clad as he does, but I do regard it as impressive. Bauckham presents a very strong and learned argument that, contrary to much modern scholarship, the gospels did not arise very long after the fact.

N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) is an even more massive tome (750 pp.). Every NT passage on Christ's resurrection is analyzed scrupulously for its historical reliability. I think Wright finally overstates his case, even more so than Bauckham does his. Nevertheless, again, I think that even with a more nuanced assessment of his findings, this is a formidable achievement.

A more popular but still scholarly work would be Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (2008) by Craig A. Evans (290 pp.). I again have the same kinds of reservations. In other words, I don't reject his arguments out of hand but I take them with a grain of salt. They are impressive but inconclusive, though they show why the minimal standard that I set forth earlier has actually been met, and more than met. An older work that still holds up fairly well, I think, would be F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (85 pp.). This well-written little book, which first appeared around 1960, has recently been reissued. I read it as an undergraduate.

The point is not that works like these have knock-down arguments. They don't. Knock-down arguments in this world are rare. The point is rather that the historical claims of the gospel are susceptible to a respectable defense. Again, however, I think that in the end these kinds of considerations are only secondary, and are at best merely preliminary.

You also write: "Furthermore (b) these stories are not necessarily trustworthy. Did they remember wrong? Were they even there? Even if they remembered right (how could they after so long?) and were actually there, did they misinterpret Jesus (of course, we know from their own accounts that they consistently did)."

What I am trying to suggest is that everything finally depends on what kind of documents the gospels and other NT writings are. They are not really historical reports. They do not fall into the category of report but rather into the category of witness. They all present themselves, in various ways, as witnesses to the Risen Christ. The picture of Jesus in the gospels, for example, represents an overlay of the Risen Christ upon the "historical" Jesus, because the point is that the historical Jesus and the Risen Christ are finally one and the same.

The Christian faith is far more a matter of radical conversion than it is of rational persuasion. The claim that a marginal Jew who was put to death on a cross should have been raised from the dead so that he now reigns as Lord and Savior is never going to be plausible to rational or evidential considerations. It is always going to be foolishness, as Paul himself confessed: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor. 1:22-25).

The NT cannot be read intelligently unless it is read as a spiritual book, as opposed to a merely historical document. The truth to which it bears witness necessarily transcends every ordinary rational mode of perception. Unless the doors of perception are opened, and we begin thinking in a whole new framework, it will never make any sense.

It is finally not we who read the NT, but the NT that reads us. It calls us and our detached role as would-be authoritative, evidence-weighing spectators radically into question. That is why it is so dangerous. Many of those original "unreliable" witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, like Peter and Paul, went to their brutal deaths as martyrs. "When Christ calls a man," wrote Bonhoeffer, "he bids him come and die."

No one who is not willing to take this risk should venture to read the NT. But many of those who have turned to it spiritually have found, throughout the centuries, that they end up saying with Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn. 6:68). I suggest that you might want to read the opening chapters in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Sweet dreams,

Monday 11 January 2010

LibriVox: free theology audio books

Since moving to Sydney and becoming a professional commuter, I've grown to love audio books (as I mentioned once before). Last year I was especially glad to discover LibriVox, a site that provides a huge variety of free audiobooks, all recorded by volunteers. They've recorded some great theological, philosophical, political and literary classics. The recordings vary in quality, but there are some real gems. Over the past several months, I've whiled away many sane commuting hours accompanied by LibriVox – including the following works:

I've been so grateful for these resources, I'm even tempted to record something myself. There's info about how to volunteer here.

Thursday 7 January 2010

On desire and beauty: an Augustinian anecdote

Some years ago, I remember taking an afternoon walk down the quiet suburban street where my wife and I were living at the time. It was early summer, a warm breeze stirred the languid jacarandas that bloomed beneath the cloudless Queensland sky.

After rambling around for half an hour or so, I noticed a woman walking towards me from the far end of the street. I had left my glasses at home, as I often do when I am out for a stroll – but even at this distance I could make out her slender waist, the curve of her hips, the dark tresses falling about her shoulders. A long skirt swayed as she walked, and I saw that she was carrying a baby at her side. I had never seen her before – I'm sure I would have remembered her. I knew most of the people around here, she must be new to the neighbourhood. I am by nature a shy person, but on this occasion I decided I would pause to chat with this lovely apparition as she passed me on the street. I would catch her eye and smile, welcome her to the neighbourhood, ask where she was from, perhaps make some innocent flirtatious remark. I continued to observe her figure as she drew closer, my thoughts lulled by the jacaranda breeze and the easy rhythm of her hips. And then, with a disorienting shock of pleasure and recognition, I saw – what I would have seen at once had I been wearing my glasses – that it was my wife, strolling in the sun with our baby daughter perched on her hip.

Augustine’s Confessions is in large measure a record of misplaced desire. Our hearts well up with idolatrous desire for created things. We turn to the world of beautiful things instead of turning to the one who is Beauty itself. “In my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you had made.” But even in our corruption and confusion, God remains the hidden object of our desire. God uses our misplaced desires to draw us, in spite of ourselves, to God. “You were with me, and I was not with you.” In our desire for beautiful things, we are suddenly ambushed by God’s beauty, deep and secret and seductive – just as, that summer afternoon, my wandering desire for the lovely form of a woman was ambushed by the woman I love. “You were radiant and resplendent, and you put to flight my blindness” (Confessions 10.27.38).

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Course reading tips: the spirituality of theology

At the college where I teach (which now has a new website), I take a small postgraduate seminar each year on contemporary theology. In the coming semester, I've decided to focus on "the spirituality of theology" (sorry, I'll try to think of a better title). My idea is to explore the work of Rowan Williams, Sarah Coakley and Mark McIntosh, focusing on the way these three writers have articulated (and modelled) a distinctive integration of theology and spirituality. In their work, systematic theology itself becomes a kind of spiritual discipline, more akin to prayer and contemplation than to Wissenschaft.

So anyway, I'm looking for some tips and suggestions. Do you think it's a good idea to stick with Williams, Coakley and McIntosh? Or are there one or two other writers whom you'd include? (I don't want to include too many writers: I'm aiming for depth rather than breadth.)

And which primary or secondary texts would you suggest? At this stage, I'm thinking of including a couple of full books, together with various chapters and essays. Each week we'll discuss a particular text, so the choice of readings is important. Any suggestions would be very welcome!

Edward Schillebeeckx and Mary Daly, RIP

In case you missed the news, two of the most Catholic church's most restless and controversial figures have passed away: the influential post-Christian feminist thinker Mary Daly died on 3 January, and the great Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx died on 23 December.

I guess it would be fair to say that, before his death, Schillebeeckx was the world's greatest living theologian, the last remaining figure of a generation of gigantic thinkers (we had a post here a couple months back to mark his 95th birthday). With his death, a whole theological generation has now passed away.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Theology FAIL: praying for Obama's death

Apparently some Southern Baptist pastors have been using Psalm 109:8 as a prayer for Obama's death: "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow." This even inspired a line of creepy bumper stickers and T-shirts that read "Pray for Obama."

One of these pastors says: "You’re going to tell me that I’m supposed to pray for the socialist devil, murderer, infanticide, who wants to see young children, and he wants to see babies killed through abortion and partial-birth abortion and all these different things. Nope. I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell."

Fail submitted by Paul Fischer.

Friday 1 January 2010

Best films of 2009

Here’s my pick of the year’s best films. To be fair, I should say that the best filmmaking of 2009 lay in the first half of Avatar and the first half of District 9. But both these films were irredeemably flawed: District 9 quickly forgot its own stunning documentary style, degenerating into an increasingly mindless and preposterous shoot-em-up; while Avatar’s brilliantly imagined fantasy world was sadly eclipsed by James Cameron’s astonishing inability to unimagine the necessity of military violence. This is a real shame, since both of these could have been among the greatest films of the decade, if only they had been half as long! But anyways, I’ve still included both these films on the list, but not in the top places. Here are my top 10:

1. Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, Australia and US)
2. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
3. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, US)
4. Avatar 3D (James Cameron, US)
5. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, South Africa)
6. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, US)
7. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany)
8. Brüno (Larry Charles, US)
9. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)
10. Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford, Australia and China)

Worst film (my wife forced me to go see it, and it was a damaging experience): Twilight Saga: New Moon


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