Friday 30 December 2011

James-ism: on growing up

My four-year-old son was playing with one of his friends here in Pasadena and she asked him, 'Jamie, what are you going to be when you grow up?'

He looked at her curiously and said, 'I'll be James.'

'No,' she said, 'I know what your name will be, but what will you be?'

But he was quite adamant. 'I'll just be James.'

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Best books (films, music, TV, websites) of 2011

OK folks, it must be time for a round-up of some highlights from the past year – mainly books, but also music, TV, films, and websites:
  • Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (Yale University Press). An exciting theological reading of Julian of Norwich, collapsing the divide between mysticism and systematic theology.
  • Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge University Press). A deep reading and thoroughgoing reevaluation of Augustine's De Trinitate.
  • Ralph Wood, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Baylor University Press). An exploration of the darker side of Chesterton's religious imagination.
  • Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Cascade Books). A sort of meta-critique of the contemporary sexuality debates, and a retrieval of the good old Augustinian doctrine of original sin.
Theological memoir: 
  • Margaret Miles, Augustine and the Fundamentalist's Daughter (Cascade Books). One of my all-round favourites of the past year – a delightful autobiographical narrative that follows the structure of the 13 books of Augustine's Confessions. More than an autobiography, it's really an autobiographical commentary on the Confessions. I read this on the way home from San Francisco after AAR, and it reminded me why theology matters.
  • Eberhard Busch, Meine Zeit mit Karl Barth: Tagebuch 1965-1968 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). Eberhard Busch's diaries from the last years of Barth's life are crammed full with insight and incident. An enormous contribution to Barth studies.
  • Eugene Peterson The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne). I'm awarding this one preemptively, since I haven't actually read it yet. I've dipped into it, and it looks like a beautiful memoir – I hope to get to it soon.
Theology translations: 
  • Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, translated by Michael Hollerich (Stanford University Press). A very important contribution to English-language theology. This collection includes some of Peterson's most brilliant and influential essays.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground, 1937-1940, translated by Victoria Barnett (Fortress Press). Letters, journal entries, sermons, and lecture notes from Bonhoeffer's time in the Finkenwalde seminary. As the young folks say: epic.
  • Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays, translated by Boris Jakim (Eerdmans). This sounds like a quirky topic – but actually, this little book offers penetrating reflection on the doctrine of creation, the theology of the body, and a theology of transcendence and materiality. Definitely one of the most profound pieces of doctrinal writing that I read all year. Light-years ahead of most of the tosh that gets written about the doctrine of creation.
Edited collections:
Popular theology:
  • Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne). I've recommended this book to several people, and I've talked to people who found it enormously helpful. In spite of all the kerfuffle surrounding it, it's really an excellent little book. Even my wife read it – twice! No theologian could ask for more.
  • N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus (HarperOne). I haven't read this yet – but again, it looks like just the kind of book to recommend to people. It's a shame we don't have more theologians who can write in this kind of attractive plain speech.
Reference work:
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Knopf). A tender, hurtful meditation on time and memory.
  • Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife (Random House). A spell-binding first novel from this young Serbian writer. It's a delightful story, told in gorgeous prose. First sentence: "In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers."
  • José Saramago, Cain (Houghton Mifflin). Translated posthumously, this is Saramago's irreverent and funny re-telling of the Pentateuch. It's not one of his best books, but it's – well, its Saramago.
Children's novel (chosen by my daughter):
  • Clare Vanderpool, Moon Over Manifest (Yearling). My daughter loved this book so much that I've started reading it too. Here's a few lines from the first chapter: "The seven-forty-five evening train was going to be right on time.... Being a paying customer this time, with a full-fledged ticket, I didn't have to jump off, and I knew that the preacher would be waiting for me. But as anyone worth his salt knows, it's best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you."
  • Francis Webb, Francis Webb: Collected Poems (UNSW Press). A major publishing event, collecting the luminous work of this tragic, strangely neglected religious poet. Read it, and you'll understand why Sir Herbert Read called Webb "one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century."
  • Kevin Hart, Morning Knowledge (University of Notre Dame Press). Poems of grief, loss, faith, and love, surrounding the death of a father.
Literary criticism:
  • Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press). I'll be the first to admit that Bloom can be more than a little annoying. But his great virtue is his enormous – really, his megalomaniacal – love of reading. And that infectious love comes booming through in this boisterous swansong about a life lived through literature.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking). Quirky, concise, lucid, brimming with energy and personality – and it's all about Moby-Dick. What more could you want?
Best fine edition:
  • Oscar Wilde, Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, illustrated by Barry Moser (University of Virginia Press). A lavishly produced book, with Barry Moser's wonderfully dark and vivid engravings.
Art book:
Best new book series:
  • Princeton University Press's Lives of Great Religious Books. What a great concept for a book series! So far I've only read Garry Wills' biography of Augustine's Confessions – and it was a real treat, especially the opening chapter on the practice of writing in antiquity.
Best older books I read this year:
  • Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948; Mariner). It's true – somehow I'd never got around to reading this before. What a book! What a writer! What a life! Not so much a life as a one-man Broadway show, a runaway steam train, a carnival of sin and grace. Absolutely tremendous.
  • Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939; New York Review Books Classics). One of the most beautiful, precise, elegantly crafted pieces of literary criticism I've ever read.
  • Tom Waits, Bad As Me. Nobody is as bad as Tom Waits. Or as good.
  • PJ Harvey, Let England Shake. A blistering, rich, eloquent, disturbing provocation about warfare and the violence underlying contemporary society.
  • Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes: enough said.
  • We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. A pretty compelling rock debut. I discovered them by accident because I thought it had something to do with Saint Augustine. But I kept on listening long after I realised my mistake.
  • Australian: Cloudstreet (Showcase). Wonderful mini-series about two working-class families sharing a house in Perth. It's a poignant family drama punctuated by moments of magic realism. Geoff Morrell's Lester Lamb is one of the grandest TV characters I've seen in years – a character of Dickensian proportions. (Honourable mention: ABC's The Slap, another excellent Aussie series.)
  • American: Boardwalk Empire (HBO). Only halfway through this at the moment, but I'm loving it – a smart, classy series about organised crime during 1920s Prohibition.
  • British: The Hour (BBC). Utterly gripping edge-of-your-sofa suspense about a 1950s current affairs show. Ben Whishaw is captivating as the slovenly genius Freddie Lyons.
  • Australian: Brendan Fletcher, Mad Bastards. A raw piece of storytelling about three generations of indigenous Australians. The film used non-professional actors from indigenous communities, and the result feels gritty and confrontingly authentic.
  • American: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life. This beautifully filmed cosmic/domestic epic is a sort of visual commentary on the Book of Job, a cinematic theodicy in answer to the dark Manichean theology of Lars von Trier's Antichrist.
  • European: Lars von Trier, Melancholia. The end of the world has never been lovelier.
  • Religion site: ABC Religion & Ethics. Scott Stephens' work on this site has catapulted public discourse about theology and religion to completely new levels of depth and sophistication.  
  • Innovative site: Bibledex. A video for every book of the Bible. Why didn't someone think of it sooner?
  • Blogs: Women in Theology and An und für sich. These team-blogs have produced some of the most fruitful and sustained discussions about theology in the past year. I've learned so many interesting new things from these discussions. When I only have time to lurk at a couple of blogs, those tend to be the ones I go to – and then I head over to Jason's relentlessly productive Per Crucem ad Lucem.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Thirty: a Christmas sermon

A Christmas sermon by Kim Fabricius

This is my 30th Christmas at Bethel. (I know: given my youthful good-looks, it’s hard to believe…)  In preparation, I’ve been looking at my previous 29 sermons.

On my first Christmas (which some of you will remember … Yeah, right!), I focussed on two specifics of the message of the angels to the shepherds, highlighting the personal and the now: “To you … this day …” I named names – Ernie, Gareth, Pat, …, and said, today, December 25th 1982, the good news strikes again: “A Saviour is born!  Your Saviour is born!!”  Very in-your-face.

A year later I did a Patrick Moore (today it would be BBC pin-up Professor Brian Cox) and took you star-gazing.  “Lift your heads!” I said.  “There’s another world out there that has flashed into our world like the star the wise men saw and followed, leaving their familiar ecology, recklessly risking everything in their passionate hunt for the holy, for the real, (in T. S. Eliot’s words) “no longer at ease here in the old dispensation.”  Will you raise your gaze from the flatlands of 24/7 and follow that star on a journey of faith into the New Year?  Very get-up-and-go.

Then, in 1984, I deployed a visual aid.  I borrowed a shopping trolley from the International (which became Spar, which has become Sainsbury’s) and strolled up and down the aisle filling it with the presents you brought to the service.  So full, in fact, that they covered the child’s seat – which was precisely my point: in all the clutter of our lives, no room for the child.  But – more – God is a God who “makes room” – that’s what the Hebrew word for “salvation” literally means – “roominess”.  “So make room for the Christ-child!” I exclaimed, as I cleared the seat in the trolley.  What a clever-clogs I thought I was!

In 1985, it was the occasion for a word-play.  Huge letters Blu-Tacked to the backs of chairs set up at the front: “GOD IS NOWHERE”.  Such, I said, is the claim of atheism.  But if you take the word “NOWHERE” – and I took the word “NOWHERE” – and break it after the “W” – and I broke it after the “W” – well, presto!: “GOD IS NOWHERE” becomes “GOD IS NOW HERE”, the Christmas claim.  Neat, huh?

In 1986, I got scholarly.  Mary, according to Luke 2:19, “remembered”, or “treasured”, all the things the shepherds had told her.  But the original Greek actually means “kept them in good condition”.  Our toys will break, our jumpers will wear, or jewellery will tarnish, but, I said, God will always keep Jesus as good as new.  So getting up for Greek class at 8:30 in Oxford, I thought, was worth it after all!

That’s my first 5 years here.  Only 25 to go…  Okay, I know, at this rate it will be Boxing Day before I finish!  So suffice it to say that, in subsequent years, among other things …

I’ve used a Christmas card showing Santa in Australia riding Rudolf the red-nosed wallaby, to contextualise the good news, to earth it wherever you happen to live.

I’ve done a reflection on “Christmas is dynamite”, Jesus as “an explosion of humanity”: handle this kid in the cot with care, for he will grow up to be the man from Nazareth who lives very dangerously – and he will call us to follow.

I’ve told you about the 4½ foot-high door in the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, and said that we have to become very small, like a child, if we want to enter the kingdom of God.

I’ve done a meditation on Jesus the “disarming” child who couldn’t care less about our nationality or sexuality or theological correctness, who “reaches out, unquestioningly, to your elemental humanity, desiring only your tenderness, moist like cattle breath, warm like straw.”

I’ve exploited Harry Potter mania, suggesting that J. K. Rowling is quite heavily reliant on the story of Jesus for her magical epic drama – which isn’t nearly as good as the original.

I’ve made up a meeting of the IMF – that’s the Incarnational Management Forum – imagining what such a focus group might come up with for Christmas – and, of course, getting it all wrong by turning Christmas into a summit meeting of the world’s power brokers.  You can imagine the mess!

I’ve done a send-up on “Round Robin” Christmas letters, imagining what Mary might write for Hello magazine with all its razzmatazz celebrity junk: “Joseph is an amAAAzing partner, the birth was AWEsome, and three Kings gave us LOTS of bling-bling, while some shepherds sang ‘Hark! the Harrods Angels sing’.”

I’ve asked if you’re good at remembering important dates, pointed to dates we all seem to remember – great ones like the release of Nelson Mandela, terrible ones like 9/11 – but concluded that there is no day like Christmas Day for a world-changing event – apart, of course, from the Good Friday it anticipates, crib and cross cut from the same wood.

I’ve deployed Dr Seuss’ classic tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas? to advance the claim that, in fact, Christmas is un-nickable, that we are safe and secure in Christ, the one who never treated others as rivals, never acted in self-protection, lived a life of dispossession, not accumulation.  If you can’t buy or sell love, you certainly can’t steal it.

I’ve shocked some people by proposing that, given the rather odd, indeed preposterous way the Christmas story unfolds, what with weird Babylonian astrologers, and shepherds who hear music in the sky, and a stable of a maternity ward – I proposed that, by the world’s standards, frankly, God is an idiot.

Finally, last year – “Land the plane!” I can hear Angie thinking! – I mocked the fashionable obsession with technology in worship, insisting that Christmas is God’s “Powerless Point Presentation”, God’s coming in the weakness and vulnerability of a neonate to counter and critique the world’s wowing us with the state-of-the-art.

So 29 years of annually looking for a different angle, a new gimmick, a catchy phrase to preach the Good News of Christmas.  But really – as if the Christmas story needs a re-write!  As if the Christmas message needs spin!  As if I could re-market the meaning of Christmas, “new and improved”!  O Kim, Kim, Kim – what a jerk!!

Listen!  A simple story that unlocks the hidden treasures of the universe, addresses the deepest desire of our hearts, and fills us with wonder and joy.  The mystery of the world turns out to be the reality of God, and the reality of God turns out to be a little human being. Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, all the great storytellers – they can all but grandly gesture to the simple story of Jesus in Luke.  So this year let not the sermon interpret the story, let the story interpret the sermon.  Yes, listen …: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus …” [Luke 2:1-20].

Saturday 24 December 2011

Audio: Bruce McCormack's lectures on election

Thanks to Jason for noting that Bruce McCormack's recent Kantzer Lectures are now available in audio:

The God Who Graciously Elects: 2011 Kantzer Lectures

1. Is the Reformation Over? Reflections on the Place of the Doctrine of God in Evangelical Theology Today

2. From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox Understanding of God

3. The Great Reversal: From the Economy of God to the Trinity in Modern Theology

4. The God Who Reveals Himself: The Mystery of the Trinity in the New Testament

5. Which Christology?  Refining the Economic Basis of the Christian Doctrine of God

6. The Processions Contain the Missions: Reconstructing the Doctrine of an Immanent Trinity

7. The Being of God as Gift and Grace: On Freedom and Necessity, Aseity and the Divine 'Attributes'

Sunday 18 December 2011

We hang our heads in shame and guilt

A hymn by Kim Fabricius
(Tune: Mit Freuden zart)

We hang our heads in shame and guilt
for ruthless exploitation:
we heat the earth and watch it wilt
for capital and nation.
In pitiless pursuit of oil
we poison air and sea and soil –
the lords of de-creation.

“Have mercy on us, Lord!” we plead,
but is it false confession?
We mask misdeeds, we gild our greed,
as peace we spin aggression.
We’re skilful at the apt excuse,
and the dark arts of word-abuse –
the truth is in recession.

O God, this is our world of vice,
come, judge us, test us, try us;
though we deny you, Jesus Christ,
Deliverer, don’t deny us;
break down the selves in which we hide,
evict our vanity and pride –
O Spirit, occupy us!

Thursday 15 December 2011

The song: a short story

After dinner he felt so happy that he went into the other room and wrote a song, full of small words of simple gladness. When it was finished he brought it to her and said, Look, I wrote you a song.

She said, All this time you were so silent, I thought you must be mad at me, I thought you must be brooding, I thought you no longer loved me, I thought you were all alone, I thought you might be thinking of someone else.

He said, But I only think of you.

When she sat down to read the song, she was silent a long time while her heart within her grew glad and boundless as the heart of a child. Watching her carefully from the corner of his eye, he wondered if it was his fault that she had suddenly grown so quiet, so sullen and so subdued, if he had done something to offend her, if she still loved him, if she had ever really loved him, if she was thinking of somebody else, if she was all alone in her thoughts, alone beside him in the pale lamplight with the song of his heart in her hands.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Karl Barth for beginners

No doubt about it, when it comes to theology Charlie Barth was a bit of a genius. Trying to get your head around even a few of his ideas is no mean feat: if you're not careful it has been known to induce migraine, vertigo, religious conversion, or even doctoral studies.

So to help you out, here's a quick colloquial abridgement of Barth's whole theological career:
  • Romans commentary (early 1920s): God judges
  • Göttingen dogmatics (mid 1920s): God speaks
  • Anselm book (1930): God knows
  • Church Dogmatics I (1930s): God gives
  • Church Dogmatics II (1940s): God loves
  • Church Dogmatics III (1940s-50s): God blesses
  • Church Dogmatics IV (1950s-60s): God befriends
  • Church Dogmatics V (never written): God heals 
As you can tell, old Charlie Barth wasn't a fox, he was a hedgehog. He knew only one big thing – that God is God, and that the word "God" is a good word.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The icon of theophany: one lingering glance

Then suddenly, like an axe laid violently at the roots, a voice splits the silence of eternity and some holy thing plummets straight down towards the one who stands alone amid the flowing waters, 

whose life is as purposive as running rivers, shunning the heights and seeking out the lowest place, rushing down so far and so fast that our hands can hardly reach him, not without leaning dangerously near the edge, just as startled strangers once stooped to touch him in the cradle and afterwards to feel his cold unyielding body in the ground, 

all his flesh exposed to those cleansing Jordan waters as he stands in silence, as low as any river's end, so that the baptist has to bend his frail starved body like a bow to discharge the quick sharp blessing, reaching down to touch the head of him whose sandals none is worthy to undo, as though this one had need of human blessing or approval when he himself is the silent benediction resting on all creatures, or as though he could win glory from any of the sons of men when he is the holy brightness pulsating at the hidden heart of things, the still point about which all the worlds revolve, 

so that even the holy angels, bright in heaven's raiment and terrible beneath their wings of fire, lean hungrily towards his gentle silence, zealous for the devastating undreamt-of majesty of his unexceptional and still unwounded flesh, poised beside him like runners before the race and clutching their robes as towels, having waited longingly through all ages for one chance to pay him menial honour, as though the highest hope of dreadful cherubim and seraphim were to wipe cold bathwater from human flesh (for eternity's immortal monsters covet meekness, lowliness, and anonymous service just as the mortal children of Cain crave power, fame, and recognition), 

this fleshly being who transcends us only by standing infinitely lower than us, almost inaccessible in the extremity of his poverty and abnegation,

and who might remain forever hidden from a world that worships power had not the tremendous voice like thunder announced his rank as first-born of creation, and the birdlike lightning energies cascaded down upon him without measure, cleansing him whose touch makes all things clean, 

while the baptist's mad wild eye looks on in terror and the angels turn their faces meekly down, folding their burning wings and bending with shimmering towels to dry his body in preparation for his second baptism, that funereal pyre in which the dove will descend as cataracts of flame,

and what has fallen to earth will leap again heavenwards like tongues of fire.

Monday 5 December 2011

New Rowan Williams book: coming soon

One of my favourite songs is about going to California – and that's what my family and I will be doing in the morning. I'm on sabbatical, so for the next few months I'll be a Visiting Scholar at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.

My new book on Rowan Williams should be out pretty soon too. There's an edited extract at the ABC site, from the chapter on politics: Politics of the Empty Church: Why Rowan Williams Defended Sharia Law.

And here's a blurb from Lewis Ayres:

Myers’ book exhibits many of the traits he describes in the theology of Rowan Williams: an attentiveness and care that makes the familiar strange, a sparse but rich prose that bears re-reading, a seeking always for historical foundations and resources. In fact, this elegant book is a complex intellectual biography that convincingly roots its hero in a series of engagements – the centrality of MacKinnon, Wittgenstein and Hegel in Williams’ thought is revealed – which are then shown to occur within an on-going reflection on the life of prayer. Throughout, the complex paths of Williams’ theology are introduced with clarity and verve. —Lewis Ayres, Durham University
It's a small book, short and snappy, with 14 chapters. Here's the table of contents:

1. Sociality
2. Tragedy
3. Language
4. Boundaries
5. Tradition
6. Growth
7. Mission
8. Saints
9. Desire
10. Hope
11. Prayer
12. Fantasy
13. Renunciation
14. Writing

Saturday 3 December 2011

Doodlings piled higher and deeper

by Kim Fabricius

We pray so that we may learn how it feels and what it entails to be loved by God. All “problems” with prayer are, ultimately, problems with love.

I don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer because I believe in God, I believe in God because I pray the Lord’s Prayer.

A life without prayer is an empty house.

I hear Quentin Tarantino is making a director’s cut of the Nativity. It’s called The Massacre of the Innocents.

The only substantive criticism to be made of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is that this inexhaustibly rich, mysterious, and tender film ends. The scene with the wounded (female? pregnant?) plesiosaur and the predatory velociraptor that doesn’t predate (WHY? – we are teased to project) haunts me.

I reckon that adults should be admitted to the Bible only if they are accompanied by children.

Here is an example of a Christian who doesn’t “get it”: he infers from Jesus’ saying about the hairs on our head being numbered by the Father (Matthew 10:30) that God actually has a calculable figure in mind, because God knows everything, right?

In a theological critique of the Occupy Movement, an otherwise fine Christian blogger recently opined that “there is, in principle, no gradation of right and wrong before a Holy God. There is either right, or there is wrong; there is no political or social theory that is more or less proximate to God’s ways in Christ.” This is a view that Bonhoeffer would label a Christian “radicalism” that despises the “penultimate”. Bonhoeffer urged, in contrast, a faith that discerns in the world practices of decency that Christians should affirm, and practices of corruption that Christians should oppose. He also advocated supporting and working with the good guys. Indeed. We may live in an age of darkness, but not all the cows out there are black.

Believing that non-Christians who, manifestly, are good are not really is like believing that fossils that, manifestly, are antediluvian are not really. Virtutes gentium splendida vitia? Rather, if it looks, walks, and quacks like an anas, it’s probably an anas, not an anus.

Why are the US and Europe so bollixed? Because the leaders of the West who came of age in the sixties no doubt remember them.

Is it morally permissible to torture another human being? Even to raise the question is to be lost.

Is God more powerful than Satan? No.

The geometry of the kingdom is non-Euclidian: the shortest distance between here and there is not a straight line, it’s a detour of indeterminate length.

Advent prayer: Hound of heaven, make us your prey, we pray.

Is time-travel possible? Of course. As suggested by the initial results of the Opera collaboration on the acceleration of muon neutrinos, faster than the speed of light? No, as realized in that experiment with a Maranatha we call Advent: Christ comes to meet us from the Future.

Do not be deceived: famines, earthquakes, wars, even portentous astronomical phenomena – none of these things are signs that the parousia is imminent. On the other hand, if the Cubs are leading the league come mid-September …

Nature abhors a vacuum, grace loves one. That’s why God made hell.

The fundamental difference between traditional Methodists and hyper-Calvinists is that traditional Methodists never gamble, while for hyper-Calvinists it’s always double or nothing.

“Awesome”. “Amazing”. “Incredible”. New Christians talking about Jesus? Yes, and the judges on The X Factor talking about their acts. Remove these three words from their vocabulary and they would sit there like Trappist monks.

It may be easier to negotiate with a terrorist than with a church organist, but it is easier to negotiate with a church organist than with a cat.

I don’t have a PhD (for me the suggestion to do one was a temptation, not an opportunity), but tell me if I’m wrong in saying that unless it bears fruit in the virtues of gratitude, humility, and friendship, it does indeed amount to poo “piled higher and deeper”.

Jesus said that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). He had obviously never met anyone with Alzheimer’s.

I expect to live to 100. Only the good die young. And blues singers. And maybe doctors. Have you ever met an old doctor? It makes you wonder.

Ignatius called the eucharist is the “medicine of immortality”. You could also call it the gingko biloba of the church.

Prayer for a funeral: Veni, Cremator Spiritus!

Ben has just returned from the AAR Meeting in the City by the Bay. Damn, he forgot to pack his copy of The Beauty of the Infinite, which he’d been rereading for the Eastern Orthodox Study Group. That is, he left his Hart in San Francisco. [I know – that was AWful! I’m outta here…]

Wednesday 30 November 2011

James-ism: the doctrine of the Fall

When I came into Jamie's room he was staring at his hand in disgust, saying: "Eeew. I just spat in my hand – on purpose!"

There's enough material there for a whole Dostoevsky character.

A Sydney psalm

Tonight's psalm from Sydney (loosely based on Psalms 148 and 150):

Praise the Lord!
Praise him, all you trees on my street;
Praise him you TV aerials bending in the wind;
Praise him, parked cars glistening with rain;
Praise him, screeching hissing trains;
Praise him, bright clouds reflecting Sydney's lights;
Praise him you possums fighting on the roof;
Praise him, noisy M2 traffic;
Praise him from the streets and from the station,
Praise him high and low.
Let everything that makes noise praise the Lord:
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Princeton research fellowships: evolution and human nature

This year at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, twelve resident scholars will be exploring the theme of evolution and human nature. The program will be launched by theological genius Sarah Coakley together with Melvin Konner, author of the massive new work on The Evolution of Childhood.

With support from the Templeton Foundation, CTI is also offering eight Research Fellowships of $70,000 and two Postdoctoral Fellowships of $40,000 – the deadline for applications is 30 November (sorry for the late notice – I've been away from computers lately!).

We welcome proposals to explore how the explosion of new research in evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology is challenging and changing our understanding of human nature and development, not least in relation to religion and theological accounts of the human condition. Our field of inquiry encompasses these evolutionary and human sciences, theological anthropology, practical theology, psychology of religion, religious studies, and the history and philosophy of science.

Thursday 17 November 2011

AAR in San Francisco: some theology panels

So I'm off tomorrow for the AAR meeting in San Francisco – I look forward to seeing some of you there. My own paper explores the problem of time and history in Walter Benjamin, Jacob Taubes and early Christian asceticism – it's part of the following panel:

Explorations in Theology and the Apocalyptic: Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology
Sunday - 6:30 pm-9:00 pm
Room: MM-Sierra C
Christopher Morse, Union Theological Seminary, presiding

  • Sam V. Adams: The Apocalyptic Cosmic Imaginary: Time and Space in Taubes, Moltmann, and Barth
  • Ben Myers: Jacob Taubes: Apocalyptic Time and the Retreat from History
  • David Congdon: Eschatologizing Apocalyptic: A Reconsideration of the Messianic Event
  • Virgil Bower: Embodied Eschatology: Jacob Taubes on Paul, Marx and Kierkegaard

Here are some other panels that look promising. I hope at least to get along to some of these! If you know about any other interesting panels, or if you're presenting something yourself, let us know in the comments:

Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group and Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements Group: Holy Spirit, Power, and Feminist Subjectivity in Pentecostalism
Monday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3016
Sammy Alfaro, Grand Canyon University, presiding
  • Janice Rees: Subject to Spirit: The Promise of Pentecostal Feminist Pneumatology and Its Witness to Systematics
  • Saunia Powell: Pentecostal Articulations of Feminist Theory
  • Lisa Stephenson: An Emerging Pentecostal–Feminist Theological Anthropology: North America and Beyond
  • Pamela Holmes: Towards Useable Categories of “Women’s Experiences” and “Power”: A Canadian Pentecostal Feminist Considers the Work of Margaret Kamitsuka and Kwok Pui Lan
Mysticism Group: Screening of the Documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil by Julia Haslett 
Friday - 7:00 pm-9:00 pm

Room: MM-Sierra H

Eastern Orthodox Studies Group: Syriac Patristic Literature and Spirituality
Saturday - 1:00 pm-3:30 pm
Room: MM-Golden Gate C1
Paul Gavrilyuk, University of Saint Thomas, presiding
  • Thomas Cattoi: A Garment of Metaphors? Incarnation as “Borrowed Speech” in the Poetry of Ephrem the Syrian
  • David Belcher: The Veiled Mysteries in the Testamentum Domini
  • Liza Anderson: The Interpretation of Dionysius the Areopagite in the Works of John of Dara
  • Christopher Johnson: "Base, but Nevertheless Holy": Lessons in Liminality from Symeon of Emessa
Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic Working Group
Friday - 1:30 pm-3:30 pm
Room: IC-Pacific Terrace 
This meeting of the Explorations in Theology and Apocalyptic working group will feature a paper presented by Peter Kline and Nathan Kerr, entitled "God." The presentation will be followed by a response from Phil Ziegler and open discussion.

Augustine and Augustinianisms Group: Lewis Ayres's Augustine and the Trinity and the History of Our Shifting Understandings of the Christian Trinity
Saturday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-3003
Paul R. Kolbet, Wellesley, MA, presiding
  • Michel Rene Barnes, Marquette University
  • John Slotemaker, Boston College
  • Sarah Coakley, University of Cambridge
  • Responding: Lewis Ayres, Durham University
Sarah Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay On the Trinity
Saturday - 10:00 am-12:00 pm
Room: HI-Golden Gate 1
Therese Lysaught, Marquette University, presiding
  • Alan Padgett, Luther Seminary
  • Danielle Nussberger, Marquette University
  • Responding: Sarah Coakley, Cambridge University
Explorations in Theology and the Apocalyptic: The Gospel of Mark
Saturday - 6:30 pm-9:00 pm
Room: PW-Sutro
Doug Harink, King’s University College, presiding
  • Joel Marcus, Duke University
  • Ched Myers, Bartemaeus Co-operative Ministries
  • Craig Keen, Azusa Pacific University
  • Laura C. Sweat, Seattle Pacific University
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group and Platonism and Neoplatonism Group: From Middle Platonism to Neoplatonism
Sunday - 1:00 pm-2:30 pm
Room: MM-Yerba Buena 10
Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge, presiding
  • John Dillon, Trinity College, Dublin
  • John Kenney, Saint Michael's College
  • John Bussanich, University of New Mexico
  • Sara Rappe, University of Michigan
Karl Barth Society Of North America
Friday - 4:00 pm-6:30 pm
Room: CC-2011
George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, Presiding
  • Matthew Puffer: Revisiting Karth Barth's Ethics of War
  • Jessica De Cou: “Serious” Questions about “True Words” in Culture: Against Dogmatics IV/3 as the Source for Barth's Theology of Culture
Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowship: Thomas F. Torrance and the Problem of Universalism (Paul Molnar)
Friday - 1:00 pm-3:00 pm
Room: MM-Pacific H

Karl Barth Society Of North America
Book Panel Discussion: Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity
Saturday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: CC-3005
George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, presiding
  • Gary Deddo, InterVarsity Press
  • Ivor Davidson, University of St. Andrews
  • Alan J. Torrance, University of St. Andrews
  • Responding: Paul D. Molnar, St. John's University, New York
Augustine and Augustinianisms Group: Decentered Readings of Augustine
Tuesday - 9:00 am-11:30 am
Room: MM-Sierra K
Paul R. Kolbet, presiding
  • Stephanie Frank: Using Theology to Undo Theology: Mauss's Subversion of Augustinian Moral Psychology in The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies
  • Matthew Drever: Reassessing Augustine’s Anthropology in Light of Recent Scholarly Trends
  • Jeffrey McCurry: De- and Re-centering Augustine: A Nietzschean Reading of Confessions beyond Platonism
  • Sean Larsen: Augustine for Denaturalized Societies: Two Types of Decentered Augustinianisms
Christian Theological Research Fellowship: Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine   
Sunday - 1:00 pm-3:00 pm

Room: HI-Continental Ballroom 2
Joel Scandrett, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, presiding
  • Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University
  • Vigen Gurioian, University of Virginia
  • Respondent: 
Peter Leithart, New Saint Andrews College

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Another pile of doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Only someone who doesn’t know the least thing about religion could think that the answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” is either informative or interesting.

Enough is enough. Attacking the New Atheists is like shooting a man giving himself a lethal injection.

I guess some inerrantists figure they’ve got an inerrant doctrine of inerrancy. Hence the hilarious more-inerrantist-than-thou level of some of their common-room disputes.

Did you hear about the Texan fundamentalist who, in view of Matthew 18:21-22, always packs a pocket calculator in his holster?

Rob Bell is a slick communicator. Peter Rollins tells great stories. I’ve read several of their books and enjoyed them. Then, at the back of Rollins’ recent Insurrection, I saw the photo of the pair of them in conversation before an audience. They are sitting on stools. How can you take theologians who are sitting on stools seriously? Especially the wooden kind.

The discussion on children at the Table continues in the Church of England. One vicar, relentlessly pursuing the muddle way, gives the kids grapes when they come to the table. Presumably red grapes; and seedless (Health & Safety). Does the vicar eat all the unconsumed grapes? That will give you wind, so perhaps there is a Reserved Cluster? Or you could give the kids raisins, vintage grapes. But why Communion only in one kind? Why not add a Weetabix Mini? Or, in ECUSA, a Wheaties flake? Or indeed Raisin Bran: you could get both elements in one mouthful. Hell, why not give the kids a bowl of cereal with the added eucharistic symbolism of milk and honey? This side of Offa’s Dyke you could give them a Welsh Cake. Check that – Welsh Cakes are made with sultanas, which are dried green grapes. Yes, we have the makings of a good old scholastic debate here. Heaven forbid offering children Bread and Wine.

“I share your pain” is not the Eighth Word of the Cross. Said to the bereaved, this cliché of condolence carries about the same weight of sincerity and conviction as “I know just how you feel: I lost my iPod last week.” 

What’s the difference between a contemporary funeral and a major defeat for a sports team you support? Public expressions of grief are acceptable in the latter; the former have to be “celebrations”.

It is as sacrilegious to listen to music while you’re running as it is to chew gum while you’re praying. Conversely, it is as deeply spiritual to run while you’re listening to music as it is to pray while you’re chewing gum. 

It will soon come to pass that before the sermon, preachers will say: “If you have a mobile phone please turn it on. Your text for this morning is …”

I give it another couple of generations before the ubiquity of IT has pretty much destroyed our ability to pray. For spiritual direction, people will go on retweets.

Of course the British government wants to hand over schools to the private sector, to venture capitalists and managers of manners, to turn out capable professionals and supine consumers, to oil the economy. Perish the thought of thought, of education as the midwifery of an interrogative citizenry. Whitehall and the City live by deceit; the last thing they want to encourage is bullshit detection. Dumbing-down is not a tragedy, it’s a strategy.

First, the free-marketeers told us that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Then we discovered that it lifts all yachts. Not to mention the battleships. 

Patriotism has moved up in the housing market since the days of Dr Johnson: it is now the second refuge of the scoundrel. After Wall Street, which is transnational.

The protest camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral: tents next to the Temple. The biblical symbolism is resonant, is it not?

Some churches do debt counselling. Fine. As long as you love the usurer too: set up a Bankers Anonymous.

This year in the UK, in the lead-up to Remembrance Day/Sunday, the wearing of the red poppy has been de rigueur for every public figure and performer, from Members of Parliament to football players. There has not been a single exception on television, from Newsnight to The X Factor (with poppies ranging from the classic to the ostentatious). I suspect it’s a largely subconscious collective attempt to deny or repress the reality of the shameful war being fought in Afghanistan. With such apt irony: the poppy, after all, is an opiate.

Certainly a Christian may enter the ministry of armed forces chaplaincy – as long as he leaves it with a dishonourable discharge.

Sarkozy calls Netanyahu a liar, and Obama responds, “You may be sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day.” Yeah, like I deal with my wife when I have to deal with my wife: “Yes, dear.”

Advice to a discerning heterosexual male: If you find a nubile woman, rare as rubies, who rates Moby-Dick, propose at once. (BTW, I see from her pics that Catherine Keller doesn’t wear a wedding band…)

Birth order, sibling rivalry, maternal inattention, inferiority complex, over-compensation and the “striving for significance”: for a little psycho-hermeneutical fun, you can go to Adler as well as Moses to explain the behaviour of little Jimmy in the early church.

Ventriloquism is the key to understanding the prayer-life of young Christians. They will either grow out of it or become the CEOs of mega-churches.

Some Protestants are concerned that when the ban on monarchs marrying Roman Catholics is lifted, Rome will devour Britain. Too late: to judge from the size of him, Chesterton already did it.

There is an earthly object, at once small and huge, that is irrefutable evidence that God so orders the world that even in the hell of anguish one may yet howl with laughter: the common haemorrhoid.

Writing is like a trip to the dentist for a root canal: you hate going but you’re glad you’ve been. 

Friday 11 November 2011

The icon of the Holy Cross: 15 glances


The icon portrays revelation: the crucifixion of the human Jesus as the appearance of the eternal God. The divine being is eternally cruciform, even as it is eternally radiant.

The crucifixion of Christ is the secret of eternity, the true and only glory that shines forever from the abyss of nothingness.

At the centre of Christian devotion is not a revealed doctrine, a religious ideal, or even a right way of life, but an embodied human person. Christianity began not with beliefs about Jesus, but with people who had known Jesus. They were affected by Jesus as we are affected by a powerful friendship, not as we are affected by reading a powerful book or encountering a new idea. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled…" (1 John 1:1). The heartbeat of Christian faith is embodied encounter.

The crucifixion is depicted here as realistically as is possible within the bounds of iconographic form. The human Jesus stretches out his arms across a rough-hewn wooden beam. His body is bent, his feet twisted, his hands pierced, his head turned down in sorrow.

Around this earthly historical cross shines an eternal heavenly cross. This budded cross is clean and perfect and unbloodied; its form is untouched by the harsh lines and distorted perspectives of the small internal cross. Its form is light itself, the light of eternity. Everything contingent, historical, earthly is suspended amid this timeless light, absorbed into the serene balance of perfect form. The budded cross is the true essential form, the Platonic reality, that projects the earthly crucifixion like a black shadow on to the wall of the cave of time.

The eternal cross is a theodicy. Death and hell are safely circumscribed within its shining frame.

At the top of the icon, the glorious divine face of Christ peers through the curtains, high above the earthly historical cross of Jesus. Unlike the face of the crucified one, this Christ-face looks straight ahead, reminding us that its own impassive glory is the ultimate truth of the crucifixion. On either side, the saints gather reassuringly, springing like flowers from the barren wood of the cross. The saints model for us our own proper response to the spectacle of the crucified one. We are to respond with adoring humility and reverent submission. The presence of the saints makes the cross safe, familiar, and accessible. There is, the icon assures us, a proper human posture that corresponds to the event of the cross. The cross stands not merely over and against us but alongside us, in uninterrupted continuity with our religious piety.

Is not history – the history of Jesus – completely fixed and immobilised in this representation? Is it not suspended in eternity like a beautiful figure inside a glass ball?

Are we not left with the impression that the icon is wholly right in what it shows, yet somehow also wholly wrong? Its sole aim is to set forth Christ as the truth of eternity, the truth that shines forever, the truth of God. But by the very act of showing this, the icon allows the impassive majesty of eternal truth to eclipse the brute fact of the cross of history. 

When I was a little boy, I lived in a vast sprawling mansion beside the sea on a tropical island in North Queensland. When I was grown up, I went back one day to the island and saw my childhood home: a little dilapidated fibro beach shack with a tin roof and cracked concrete floors, scarcely bigger than a backyard shed. All my life, the real earthly house had been eclipsed by the fantasy house which my memory had built for me as, year after year, I silently venerated my childhood. The fantasy house was beautiful: but it was fantasy.

As though we cannot venerate Christ without immediately turning him into an idol, an eternal idea instead of an embodied person. As though religious piety produces an immediate and inevitable transformation of the cross into a smooth, perfectly balanced object, something easily grasped and held in the hand, an instrument not of judgment but of consolation.

Theological truth and spiritual fantasy are thus bound together in the icon, as closely related as wheat and tares or light and day. 

You can see why Karl Barth so loved Grünewald's great and terrible painting of the crucifixion. In Grünewald, one finds a complete repudiation of Christian Platonism: a theology of the cross stripped bare of all theology of glory. Yet Grünewald's Protestant aesthetic has its own perils. Without something like a Platonic anchoring, are we not right on the brink of a steep descent into theological nihilism? In beholding the earthly historical cross devoid of all religious mediation, do we not find ourselves at the very doorstep of hell?

Or is that, perhaps, where we are meant to find ourselves when we behold the cross?

The truth of the icon – a truth that Grünewald all but obliterates – is that there is, for us, no means of access to Christ accept through religious veneration. Our only contact with Christ is through worship in the company of the living tradition of the saints – even if our worship immediately becomes indistinguishable from idolatry. We cannot have Christ without religion: that is the truth that the icon teaches. But – this is what the icon forgets – we can speak of "true religion" only as we speak of a "justified sinner" (Karl Barth).

Sunday 6 November 2011

The St Paul's Cathedral hornet's nest

At the ABC site, Scott has run a triptych of pieces on the St Paul's Cathedral crisis:
  • Rowan Williams: "The Church of England and the Church Universal have a proper interest in the ethics of the financial world and in the question of whether our financial practices serve those who need to be served - or have simply become idols that themselves demand uncritical service." 
  • John Milbank: "And while very many London clerics over the years have made an honourable social witness, the fact is that the higher echelons of the London diocese have tended to be complicit with just this flummery and too much in love with a power that they can only touch through its trappings. Indeed, it is this sham ritual that has frequently blinded them to genuine symbolic resonance. And now this inherited blindness is exposed for the world to see – a most spectacular blindness. 
  • Luke Bretherton: "For what is a Cathedral meant to be but a place where people can come and experience a different time and space, and can live, if only for a moment, in a vision of a different future, and thereby have reality re-framed?"

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Robert W. Jenson, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse

A guest-review by Steve Wright

This year I spent Reformation Day with Robert Jenson’s latest book: Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse (sample chapter here). At only eighty pages, I had expected to spend an hour with it. But like his previous publication with the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, A Large Catechism, it took me longer to read than expected because of the urgent need to pray or giggle.

My wife commented that these ten slogans sound like “Protestant slogans”. She may be right. The exception is finitum capax infiniti, which is “exclusively Lutheran... because nobody else has agreed with it” (p. 55).

The subtitle is misleading. Jenson frequently gestures to the ambiguity or confusion of certain slogans, not simply to their “use” or “abuse”. This ambiguity is sometimes terminal (as seems to be the case for sola Scriptura). Slogans, we are told, are a necessary shorthand that emerges over time to signify a complex of propositions and practises. Despite the word’s stigma, slogans have a positive function. The problem with slogans is that they tend to develop a certain independence as they age, becoming untethered and paddling to foreign shores.

An example of this untethering is the frequent attempts by some Lutheran theologians to categorise all reality under the rubrics “law” or “gospel”. Jenson argues that it should be clear that this use of “gospel” has drifted from the story of Jesus. What was a history is now a generalised concept. Reframing the dialectic as “death” and “resurrection” does not help. Death and resurrection are not a dialectical pair, but moments in the history of Christ’s life (pp. 35-36).

This book is delightful for many reasons. Jenson takes almost every opportunity afforded him to disagree with Melanchthon. Although on one occasion he finds himself required begrudgingly to give Melanchthon his “partial due” for identifying the Spirit with the gift the Spirit brings (p. 46).

Jenson has been described as the perfecter of the footnote; clearly this was a reference to the dynamic perfection of the East. Like our Lord’s wine, he has brought out his finest well after the guests have gotten a little tipsy from his systematics. Whether he is confessing his enduring awe for Augustine, comparing the proliferation of trendy religion in the second century with California, or denying that Lutherans have ever taught anything that could be called consubstantiation, his footnotes always delight. He even works in a reference to a theology blog (sorry Ben, not this one).

Throughout Jenson maintains his career-long argument that the object of theology must be “God himself in his own visibility and disgrace” (p.39). That is, Christ destroyed on the cross and raised again. Though internalised through faith, we will always encounter this God through an external Word. So much for subjective faith. Faith is “a strange kind of knowledge, more like a dark cloud around its object than a bright transparency.” If we look inward to find Christ “we will only enter a cloud of unknowing” (p. 20).

What then, must we do to keep theological slogans moored? If the only legitimate use of slogans is when they are tethered to God in Christ, then the imperative is clear. We must immerse ourselves in the narrative of the triune God. We are to “fill the church with Scripture” (p. 80). 

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Melbourne Cup and animal ethics: just a bloody punt

Today is one of the most sacred events in the Australian liturgical year: Melbourne Cup day. Pretty much everyone in the country stops to watch the race and to have a punt. Even school children are encouraged to join in the fun of betting on the horses. Though I don't mean to come across as the cranky old Christian spoil-sport, I wrote a piece for the ABC site today, drawing on Karl Barth's animal ethics – Melbourne Cup: the race that tramples creation: "The Melbourne Cup is the climax of a cruel and bloody practice, exhibiting what Karl Barth called our 'astonishing indifference and thoughtlessness' regarding animals."

As for the question of Australia's pathological predilection for gambling, here's a great video with a couple of excellent satirical TV ads. The second ad is especially good – I think this pretty much says it all:

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Virgin of Vladimir: seven glances


Behold the handmaid of the Lord! 

There are paintings you can look at for a time, until at last you have finished with them. The Virgin of Vladimir is not that kind of picture. You could look at it all your life, and you'd still only be getting started – or rather, you'd be getting even further away from sounding out its mystery. To look at an icon is to "fast with your eyes" (St Dorotheus). 

Though the face of the Virgin at first absorbs all our attention, the small insistent face of the child is, in fact, older and wiser and more – how else to put it? – more eternal. This small face constitutes the real centre of the icon and the real source of its radiance. Reflecting his light, the Virgin shimmers. Her infinitely sad, infinitely strong face is pulled towards the commanding gravity of this centre.

Yet observe the child's face, turned upwards and pressed so eagerly against the face of the mother. Look at his expression. Is it not something strangely close to – worship? Indeed, if I met someone who did not know what it meant to worship, I could hardly do better than to point to this picture, to this child's face, and to say: "It looks like that."

On the one hand, there is a real religious danger here: the danger of allowing Christ's mother to become an independent centre of religious devotion. But on the other hand, there is something profoundly true and correct in the representation of this child's "worship" of his mother. For no other word comes close to evoking the extent of Christ's devotion to humanity. To speak of Christ's "love" is too hackneyed and half-hearted. When we talk of love, we tend to think of delirious teenagers locked in the obsessiveness of romance, or of a man seducing a woman into his bed, or maybe of an old married couple, contented and at peace. But we would perhaps be closer to the truth if we imagined Christ's devotion to humanity as analogous to the piercing clarity and conviction with which the fundamentalist offers his life to god before going out into the busy street and detonating himself.

I do not mean that Christ is devoted to God in this way, but to us. His single-minded preoccupation with humanity is a kind of madness, a lucid intoxication. To unworthy humanity he ascribes all imaginable worth. As though he valued us – literally, worshipped us – above all other things, even his own life, even the life of God. 

The disturbing political and ideological role of the Virgin of Vladimir in Russian history is completely bound up with what is so pure and so instructive in it: namely, its veneration of the bond between this Child and his Mother. Look at the mother's invincibly tender clasping of her son, and you will understand the Russian people's invincible conviction of an absolute and unbreakable bond to the sacred motherland. For the Vladimir icon is a representation not only of Christ and the Theotokos but also of a transcendent bond between the Russian people and their Mother Russia. 

It is this that makes it possible to comprehend the otherwise quite bewildering way that "Russia" routinely appears in Orthodox theological writing not only as a legitimate contextual issue but as a proper doctrinal topic in its own right. The iconographer was, of course, reflecting this preexisting habit of mind, this tendency to elevate Russian belonging to a transcendent status; but it must still be said that the Vladimir icon – the most venerated image in all of Russia – has burned that conviction on to the Russian imagination for nearly a thousand years. You need only look at the icon to understand why nationalistic sentiment is so closely bound up with the hidden core of Russian religious life; why the history of modern Russian thought is essentially the story of the Slavophiles; and why, for a non-Slavic person, a complete and thoroughgoing conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church proves all but impossible.

The theological intuition underlying the whole tradition of Russian iconography is that there are, really and essentially, only two human faces: the face of Christ, and the face of his Mother. All other human persons have their own peculiar distinctiveness, their own particular faces, to the extent that they participate in these forms. For the Orthodox, it is not Adam and Eve who are the prototypes of humanity, but the New Adam and the New Eve – so that the fundamental human relationship is not that of man and woman (Karl Barth) or husband and wife (John Paul II), but of mother and child. The single form of Virgin and Child is the prototype of every human form: "The divine image in humankind is disclosed and realised … as the image of two: of Christ and of his Mother" (Sergius Bulgakov). 

The truth of this came home to me as I was writing these quiet reflections the other night. My wife and children were away for the weekend, so I had gone out alone to a jazz bar, to hear some music and try a bit of writing. It was approaching midnight, and I was drinking my beer and scratching away with my fountain pen in a crumpled notebook, with a postcard-sized copy of the Vladimir icon propped up on the table in front of me. A pretty girl came over and wanted to know what I was writing. "Are you a music reviewer," she asked. But I had to admit that I was writing about a twelfth-century religious painting. She asked about the picture, and listened to my explanation with keen interest. Then she leaned close to me – quite close – and began to seduce me. I was flattered, but also saddened as I looked into the sad eyes of the Virgin of Vladimir. As though the human body could become an instrument of promiscuity – something freely offered to a stranger in a bar – only by a careless defacement of Her face, Her holy form. "Her face is beautiful," said the girl in the bar as she peered through the haze at the icon on the table, casually brushing my arm. "Like a sculpture." 

When she said that, I loved her and saw that her own face, too, was lovely as a work of art. And so I blessed her with my eyes and walked out in the rain and went home, alone, thinking of how the lines of the girl's face had seemed – just for a second, beneath the smoke and shadows and dim lights – like a lovely, sad quotation of the holy face of the Virgin, radiant though fallen.

"There is only one face in the whole world that is absolutely beautiful: the face of Christ" (Dostoevsky).


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