Wednesday 30 June 2010

Sarah Coakley symposium

There's still a few days left to register for the Sydney symposium, Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology. I've updated the programme of papers. Sarah Coakley will be speaking twice: an opening lecture on Monday morning (12 July), and a closing public lecture on Tuesday night (13 July).

If you need a place to stay, there is some basic accommodation available on campus – you can contact Priscilla Dawson to book a room.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

2010 Karl Barth Prize: George Hunsinger

Last week, it was announced that the 2010 Karl Barth Prize will be awarded to George Hunsinger. Since 1986, the prize has been awarded by the Union of Evangelical Churches for an outstanding theological contribution or for outstanding life witness in church and society – past recipients include Eberhard Jüngel, Hans Küng, John W. de Gruchy, Bruce McCormack and Meehyun Chung. The panel said of Hunsinger:

We honor his interpretation of Karl Barth’s theology and the political testimony that resulted from it, as well as his achievements as a teacher of theology.... He proves to be not only a sophisticated interpreter but also a challenging partner in the theological and political debates of our times. Hunsinger reminds us with Karl Barth that “the event of Jesus Christ is not only a past fact of history, but also an event that is happening in the present here and now, as well as an event that in its historical completeness and full contemporaneity is also truly future."

... For decades he has been active and most effective in the defense of Human Rights. He has always warned against the resolution of political conflicts through military means. In 2006 he initiated the National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT). What then began as an appeal by 150 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other people of conscience in Princeton became one of the most important NGOs in Washington DC....

Hunsinger overcomes the false alternative between “traditional faith” and “progressive politics” and thereby becomes a bridge builder between liberal and conservative Christians. He teaches that “the chief criterion of social witness is conformity to the enacted patterns of the divine compassion as revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ”. The UEK thanks and honors George Hunsinger for his exemplary theological thinking, for his political testimony and his ecclesial teaching in the sense of a truly “generous orthodoxy”, a world-oriented interpretation and practice of Church Dogmatics.
Further details are available from Travis, Princeton Seminary, and the GEKE.

Monday 28 June 2010

Audio sermon on Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If you're interested, my sermon yesterday on Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be heard online. At the start I refer to a famous photograph from Sydney 1945 – "the dancing man":

Sunday 27 June 2010

Precious five the senses are

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

Tune: Humility – without refrain (any suggestions on alternative tunes would be welcome)

Precious five* the senses are,
how we find our way around
God’s creation, near and far,
lengthways, sideways, up and down.

And we, using hearts and minds,
sounding depths and scaling heights,
logic-bound or unconfined,
navigate our way through life.

Conscience too directs our ways,
outer law and inner voice,
through the endless moral maze
with its agony of choice.

Yet with all these human skills,
sense and sensibility,
still we can’t do what we will –
impotent ability.

Is there no way to release
old creation from its vice?
Look at what the Lord, by grace,
now has done in Jesus Christ!

God in peace invades the earth –
free at last from Satan’s grip! –
triggers new creation’s birth:
cruciform apocalypse!

* The title of a poem by W. H. Auden

Monday 21 June 2010

On reading Bonhoeffer

This weekend, I'll be preaching a sermon about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (I was asked to preach on any historical saint or theologian, so I immediately replied, "Only if it's Bonhoeffer!")

The new edition of Bonoheffer's complete works has been my most enriching, challenging and disturbing theological experience over the past couple of years. Since I moved to Sydney, my teaching and writing have been hugely influenced by these books. Sometimes Bonhoeffer has even made me (seriously) consider quitting theology and finding an honest job – like Jeffrey Stout, who stopped going to church when he read Karl Barth's dogmatics (Barth made an honest man of him). I'm still undecided on this point.

Anyway, I'm really excited about giving a sermon on Bonhoeffer. The lives of saints are a text – or rather, they are exegesis of the biblical text. As Hans Urs von Balthasar says, it's the ones who love God that really know something about God, so we ought to listen to the witness of their lives. In any case, the timing couldn't be better for a sermon on Bonoheffer. I've got three new Bonhoeffer books sitting by my bedside – you should try it sometime, it's like going to sleep with a stick of dynamite under your pillow:

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 8; Fortress 2010), 750 pp. – This whole series of volumes has rocked my world. So my hands trembled with anticipation when the latest volume arrived: the complete collection of Bonhoeffer's momentous and terrifying prison writings.
  • Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (T&T Clark 2010), 439 pp. – This looks like a great biography, the fruit of decades of work and reflection. It's premised on the fact that "Bonhoeffer did not want to be venerated; he wanted to be heard. Anyone who puts him up on a lonely pedestal is defusing that which, to this day, makes a thoughtful encounter with him worthwhile."
  • Joel Lawrence, Bonhoeffer: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark), 134 pp. – This one looks quite good too. I'm glad to see he emphasises the centrality of Bonhoeffer's christological understanding of the church: "The church [is] the place where the life of Christ is being created in history by the work of the Holy Spirit."
There's also a new popularly written biography, which I haven't seen yet: Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson 2010). If Amazon sales are anything to go by, it looks like it's a big success. Anyone read it?

Friday 18 June 2010

A theology of scholarship

I've started working on a paper titled "Discerning Christ in Contemporary Thought: The Christological Basis of Christian Scholarship", for a conference in Melbourne next month. I'm trying to develop a christological understanding of the nature of Christian scholarship, followed by a brief discussion of contemporary philosophical readings of St Paul as an example of this approach to scholarship. Here's an excerpt from my first draft of the paper:

Contact with contemporary thought has nothing to do with generic sentiments about difference, tolerance and open-mindedness. It is rather – to put it as starkly as possible – a matter of obedience. The risen Christ is not internal to the church’s life; he is not ‘in’ the church, but is always on his way into the world. He judges, addresses and leads the church from without. For this reason, the church cannot rest content with its own traditions and internal resources, as though the church already possessed Christ. Rather the church must remain alert and attentive, looking into the world for traces of Christ’s life and activity.

It is here that scholarship proves indispensable to the church’s mission. The vocation of Christian scholarship is to cultivate a continuing alertness to the voice of Christ, knowing full well that Christ – because he is risen – is ‘not a dead friend but a living stranger’ (Rowan Williams). He speaks to the church in ‘strange ways’ from strange places; scholars have no privileged access to Christ’s voice, but their job is to help the church to discern this voice so that the whole church can respond in obedient faith. The church will at times discover ‘its own nature and mission’ only as it listens carefully to the voice of Christ in contemporary thought or in wider social discourses and practices.

Christian scholars must labour with the complexities of contemporary thought, not in pursuit of mere novelty or a colourless open-mindedness, but out of a disciplined attentiveness to Christ’s own voice. It is the risen Christ who draws the church out of itself and into a history of promise; because Christ is not ‘in’ the church, there is no way of anticipating in advance where he will be found, or the places from which he will speak. As Karl Barth famously remarked: "God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog…. God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the church and the secular world can take at any time a different course from that which we think we discern."

Just as the church’s vocation is to remain poised and attentive to Christ, so the vocation of Christian scholarship is to cultivate the asceticism of discernment, to steel the church for future opportunities – strange and unpredictable – to respond faithfully to the voice of Christ.[...]

This account might go some way towards dissolving the old debate about whether theology is primarily oriented towards the church or the university. Christian scholarship will naturally be practised within these (and other) diverse institutional environments. Fundamentally though, the vocation of Christian scholarship is neither ecclesial nor academic, but christological. Its most basic orientation is neither to the academy nor the church, but to the risen Christ.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Karl Barth on writing theology

Time for another post on writing. You often hear the mantra that theology needs to be simple and accessible, addressed to some anonymous general audience. Here's what Karl Barth has to say about this view, in his preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 4-5 in the English edition; translation modified):
Those who urge us to shake off theology itself and to think – and more particularly to speak and write – only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment [halte ich für eine durchaus hysterische und unbesonnene Ansicht]. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first themselves seek a better understanding of their topic? ... I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must expect nothing but theology. If, in spite of this warning, it should stray into the hands of non-theologians – some of whom I know will understand it better than many theologians – I will count it a great joy. For I am altogether persuaded that its content concerns everyone, since the question it raises is everyone's question. I could not make the book any easier than the subject itself allows.... If I am not mistaken ..., we theologians serve the "laity" best when we refuse to have them especially in mind, and when we simply follow our own course, as every honest labourer must do.
Drawing by nakedpastor.

Thursday 10 June 2010

The Bible for Smartasses

by Kim Fabricius

Genesis: A Good Start?
Exodus: Free at Last?
Leviticus: Filthy!
Numbers: Old (Jewish) Wives Tales
Deuteronomy: The Same Old Same Old
Joshua: America: The Prequel
Judges: The Genealogy of Judy
Ruth: Pretty Woman
I and II Samuel: No, Prime Minister!
I and II Kings / I and II Chronicles: No, No, A Thousand Times No, Prime Minister!
Ezra and Nehemiah: Mending Wall
Esther: The Bitch
Job: The Three Douchebags
The Psalms: Mood Music
Proverbs: On Not Being Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde
Ecclesiastes: Angst Made Easy
Song of Songs: Hot!
Isaiah: The (Thrice) Split Personality
Jeremiah: The Whistleblower
Lamentations: The Crybaby
Ezekiel: The Electric Kool-Aid Kid
Daniel: The Empire Strikes Out
Hosea: My Girl
Joel: Shitstorm
Amos: It’s the Economy, Stupid!
Obadiah: Edom Cheese
Jonah: Don’t Call Me Ishmael!
Micah: The Requirements
Nahum: Contra Jonah
Habakkuk: Mr. KKK
Zephaniah: Shitstorm: The Sequel
Haggai: If You Build It
Zechariah: He Will Come
Malachi: Fast Train Coming

Mark: The Badass
Matthew: The Schlemiel Returns
Luke: Mr. Nice Guy
John: Wine, Women, and Long-Winded Speeches
Acts: The Boys Are Back in Town
Romans: Theology for Smartasses
I and II Corinthians: The Guide to Crap Churches
Galatians: On Pricks
Ephesians and Colossians: Globalisation and Its Contents
Philippians: Who Loves Yah, Baby?
I Thessalonians: Rupture Ready?
II Thessalonians: On Mr. Naughty and Mr. Lazy Bastard
I and II Timothy and Titus: Sheep Droppings
Philemon: A Wretch Like Him
Hebrews: The High Priest of Soul
James: The Gospel According to Kotsko
I and II Peter: Scatterings
I, II, and III John: All You Need Is Love (and Excommunication)
Jude: Postcard from the Edge
Revelation: The Lamb That Roared

Monday 7 June 2010

Readings on God and evil

On Sunday I gave some talks entitled "God and evil: Christian witness in a damaged world", for a vibrant Sydney theological group, School of the Prophets. The three talks were:

1. The "problem" of evil
2. What is evil?
3. A tragic gospel
(If I had time, I would have included a fourth talk as well, on evil and eschatology.)

Here's an annotated list of the texts that I referred to:

  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667) – The classic statement of the problem of evil and the need for a theodicy.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – A compelling dissolution of the project of theodicy. It's a betrayal of humanity to render evil meaningful within any larger harmonious system.
  • Lars von Trier's film, Antichrist (2009) – An alarming portrayal of the self-predatory structure of nature; nature is like a fox lying in the grass, quietly disemboweling itself. Not only human agency, but even nature itself is tragically damaged.
  • David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Eerdmans 2005) – A very poignant meditation on natural evil, and on the fact that atheist protests against theodicy retain an authentically Christian insight (often strangely absent from Christian attempts to "justify" evil).
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50 (T&T Clark 2009) – Moving beyond the Augustinian idea of evil as privation, Barth sees evil as a kind of powerful negative gravity; it is poised in an undefinable zone between being and non-being, like a vortex that sucks created things down towards non-existence.
  • Terry Eagleton, On Evil (Yale 2010) – I referred to Eagleton's Freudian analysis of evil and the death-drive. His example of the alcoholic is especially good, since it illustrates the way evil manifests itself in a surplus of will (the alcoholic doesn't have too little will-power, but too much) directed towards self-annihilation. I used this as a rough moral analogy to Barth's idea of evil: evil is not a "thing" in the world, but the ontological gravity that pulls each thing towards its own annihilation.
  • Donald MacKinnon, "Order and Evil in the Gospel," in Borderlands of Theology: And Other Essays, (Lippincott Press 1968), 90-96 – A gripping and moving account of the gospel not simply as triumph, but as tragedy. Victory is the most tragic thing in the world, except for defeat. 
  • I closed by riffing on Barth's statement, that "to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God's side against the world's disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision.
  • If I'd had time, I would also have talked (blending Barth and MacKinnon) about eschatological redemption: Christ's glorified body still retains the scars of crucifixion; the light of eternity does not erase history's tragic shadows. Even in eternity, "beauty is never free from melancholy" (Sarah Kofman).
A final note: When I was preparing the talks, I also enjoyed reading the new Herbert McCabe volume, God and Evil in the Theology of St Thomas Aquinas (Continuum 2010). It's really a study of theological language: his main aim is to dissolve the problem of evil by showing that it rests on a confusion of language. It's not the kind of book that I'd really use in my own teaching. But I reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it's hard to see exactly what you've taken away from the experience.

Theological Graffiti: bloggers edition

by Kim Fabricius

In response to a suggestion by Halden, here's a final series of clerihews by Kim on theological bloggers:

An und für sich
All say brilliant, some say pricks,
And especially savage
With those who dis Slavoj.

Maggie Dawn,
This isn’t a come-on,
But at her winsome blog I’ve lingered,
Musing if she’s rosy-fingered.

Brad East
Blogs from the Beast –
He’s from Austin –
But at least posts good news to lost liberals from Boston.

Halden Doerge
Has meteorically emerged
As a star of the blog aperçu.
Some say it’s his brains, others the microbrew.

Jason Goroncy
Is keen on oenology as well as theology:
Which explains his supporting the Blues –
It’s the booze.

Richard Hall
Does it all
At Connexions, from matters Methodistic
To driving a fundy called DH ballistic.

David Horstkoetter,
Influenced by Metz and Bonhoeffer,
On theopolitics top-notch,
Flies high on frisbees, flying farther on scotch.

Cynthia Nielsen
Is so smart it’s a sin,
And she’s impeccably orthodox:
Also a fox.

Byron Smith
Thinks green, turns red, gets pissed
At escapist’s eschatologies –
And at misplaced apostrophes.

Jim West,
On a Swiss roll, never gives it a rest.
Typing away at a thousand computers,
He’s also a one-man theological Reuters.

Michael Westmoreland-White,
Hyphenated, like Baptist-Mennonite,
Southern as comfort, big as a barrel,
Conscientious at picking a nonviolent quarrel.

Friday 4 June 2010

Margaret Atwood: the usefulness of writing

For our intermittent series on writing, here's a remark by the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. It's from a piece she did a few years ago for the Washington Post:

What is writing for? Writers – unlike dentists, bricklayers and other practical folk – are always being asked why they do what they do; asked, in effect, to prove their usefulness. It's an odd question, because language and mathematics are the two most potent and useful tools human beings have ever invented. Sometimes, as a writer, you forget this. You can get stuck; you can start believing in your own superfluity...
Update: Daniel Hartley has posted an incisive response to this quote.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Call for contributors: ABC religion and ethics

This month, the ABC will be launching its new Religion and Ethics online portal, headed up by our friend Scott Stephens. Not only will this site provide a single online destination for religion news and current affairs from around the world, it will host perhaps the most significant gathering of theologians, academics, specialists and critics on the web today. Regular contributors to the site include Stanley Hauerwas, Bill Cavanaugh, Michael Novak, Paul Griffiths, Slavoj Zizek, Tariq Ramadan, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Abdullah Saeed, and many others to be announced in due course.

The portal will also host op-eds and unsolicited contributions from theologians, academics and specialists from Australia and around the world, thus making original pieces accessible to the ABC’s extraordinarily large audience. You are invited to submit pieces on theology, religions, and their intersections with culture, literature, politics and economics to the editor for review and publication. Pieces should be around 800-1200 words in length.

There are a number of up-coming features on which Scott would love to receive original contributions, such as:
  • The domestication of Jesus in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and Peter Verhoeven’s Jesus of Nazareth
  • Why blasphemy matters
  • Stanley Hauerwas’s memoirs, Hannah’s Child, and the relationship of biography and friendship to the practice of theology and the formation of virtue
  • Bill Cavanaugh’s important new book, The Myth of Religious Violence
  • Luke Bretherton’s extraordinary proposal in Christianity and Contemporary Politics
  • The moral problem of state subsidies given to religious/charitable institutions
  • Tariq Ramadan’s Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, and the ongoing question of theology’s integrity apropos the conceits of liberal democracy
  • Environmentalism, tokenism, and the production of conservationist virtues.
If you'd like to contribute to this exciting new venture, just get in touch with Scott Stephens.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

More theological graffiti

by Kim Fabricius and Ben Myers

Here's a sequel to our recent batch of theological graffiti. This brings it to a total of 75 modern theologians. Phew, I think we need a break (for goodness sake!) from rhyming.

Marilyn McCord Adams:
Her book about Ockham
Was simply stupendous;
Her next book, horrendous.

Ray S. Anderson,
Scholarly parson,
Sent me letters and books from LA.
When he died, I was silent all day.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
Really raised the bar,
From descensus, to drama, to logic – higher and higher –
With a leg-up from Adrienne von Speyr.

G. C. Berkouwer
Spent many an hour
With Calvin; but even more, I think,
With Bavinck.

Leonardo Boff
Attacked capitalist toffs
And proposed the preferential option.
“Denied!” cried the pope, as a Marxist concoction.

Emil Brunner
Would sooner
Die than admit his celebrity status was just part and parcel
Of receiving a Nein postmarked Basel.

George Carey,
Rowan’s snide sniper of an adversary –
Oops! – a mistake:
A theologian? Give me a break!

D. A. Carson,
The evangelical’s evangelical bar none,
Is unflagging in nagging and nagging
About God’s postmodernist gagging.

James Cone
Rose from the valley of dry, black bones
To become a theology professor –
And blaspheme the God of the oppressor.

Peter Enns
Was told by his friends
At Westminster: “It’s not personal, Pete, we love you and all –
Just put on this blindfold and stand by the wall.”

Billy Graham
Was a bit of a ham,
And on hellfire and empire he went way awry.
But he was such a nice guy.

Adolf von Harnack
Rather liked the fact
That all of Europe revered him. Except for one impudent

John Hick
Is a bit of a ...
Hmm, this one time
I can’t think of a rhyme.

George Hunsinger
Ordered a burger.
The girl at the counter replied:
“Would you like any Frei?”

Nate Kerr
Has caused quite a stir
With his book on apocalyptic.
Tim LaHaye, however, is apopleptic.

George Lindbeck,
Seeing doctrine all in a wreck,
Rebuilt, not wielding a Nietzschean hammer,
But a Wittgensteinian grammar.

Alister McGrath
Writes so very fast,
Making colleagues look word-shy and shiftless,
With his output so prodigious it’s ridiculous.

Brian McLaren,
Not to be mistaken for Rick Warren,
Is thankfully not purpose-driven,
But likewise, theologically, needs to be generously forgiven.

Jean-Luc Marion
Phenomenally continues to carry on
Semester after semester after semester
About Dieu sans l’être.

Thomas Merton
Peacefully put a healing hurt on
The church and the world as sociopaths.
Then he took a bath.

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin,
His likes unlikely soon to be seen again,
Could say in perfect Tamil,
“The postmodern West has the grace of a camel.”

Rudolf Otto
Got perfectly blotto
And saw – how delightful, how luminous! –
That the whole world is smiling and numinous.

Jaroslav Pelikan
Opened a can
Of Worms when he divorced Luther
And moved in with Byzantine (who was older, but cuter).

Clark Pinnock
Had his third glass of arrack,
Then made his friends a bet:
He’d dream up a doctrine even God doesn’t know yet.

John Polkinghorne
Dawkins wishes had never been born.
“Science too takes tacit faith,” the physicist bookishly barks.
“Or don’t you believe in quarks?”

James K. A. Smith –
Is he giving or taking the pith
With his je ne sais quoi
Of Calvin and Milbank and Jacques Derrida?

Dorothy Sölle:
Prophetic, poetic, mystical, holy.
McFague and Moltmann: Frau Wow.
Gollwitzer and Barth: Frau Cow.

George Steiner,
Not exactly a whiner:
But occasionally given to dark ruminations
On how paperback printing destroyed civilisation.

John Stott
Writes a helluva lot
As the pope of the world’s evangelicals,
But his Shine-Jesus-shine’s not electrical.

Kathryn Tanner
Shouted, “Hosanna!”,
Prayed the Agnus Dei,
Then wrote Christ the Key.

Ernst Troeltsch
Happened to belch.
He said, “Pardon me, sirs, this whole situation
Has a sociologically sound explanation.”

Kevin Vanhoozer
Went with some friends to a boozer
In Boston.
He promised to say not a word about Austin.

Miroslav Volf
Played a round of golf.
His game that day was frankly rotten:
He lost count of his strokes, even God had forgotten.

Will Willimon
Recants and moves on
From a book he once did with Stanley.
He would leave Wesley too, were he manly.


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