Thursday 31 March 2011

Karl Barth's comic theology

Blogging here is a bit light at the moment. So instead of reading F&T, head over and check out the wonderful essay by Jessica DeCou of Chicago Divinity School: "'Too Dogmatic For Words'? Karl Barth's Comic Theology", Religion and Culture Web Forum February 2011. She argues that Barth's legendary combativeness and his legendary humour are two sides of the same coin: a "comic" theology. I think Eberhard Jüngel once described Barth as "the happiest theologian of our age" – and this essay shows that laughter and comedy are important for understanding Barth's thought.

And while you're at it, here's another interesting piece on Barth: John Parratta, "Barth and Buddhism in the Theology of Katsume Takizawa", SJT 64:2 (2011).

Sunday 27 March 2011

Doodlings done

by Kim Fabricius

I am currently repenting of propositions. Jesus wrote no propositions, but he once fingered a doodle (John 8:6b). David Tracy suggests that the fragment is the appropriate form for the spiritual in a postmodern world, and Kevin Hart, commenting on the writing of Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil, says: “the fragment is the vehicle of the infinite and the hope of redemption.” I’ll settle for a smile.

What do I think of the Chicago Statement? Misappropriating Derrida’s famous declaration on deconstruction, I would say, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”

My father was an architect who worked in Manhattan. He used to take clients to two-martini lunches and then work into the evening. His practice helps me to make sense of the argument from design.

A thought on chaos theory: the mass extinction of butterflies in Brazil would be an ecological eucatastrophe for people living in tornado zones in Texas.

If Sarah Palin is elected president, on the following Sunday my text will be longer than my sermon, which will also be a text: the former Proverbs 9:13-18, the latter Luke 4:21.

The composition of the Twelve should tell us what Jesus thinks about PhD students.

A blogger recently tried to insult me by remarking that I was a 60+-year-old acting like a truculent teenager. It’s the only time since I turned 50 that I wished I were 10 years older.

The tragic irony of the doctrine of predestination is that it originates in affliction and culminates in torment.

Will Christ come again? Yes – for the third time.

The main disadvantage of ministerial celibacy is that there is no one at home to remind you, at least occasionally, that you are a shit, not God’s gift.

In the archetypal conversion story, the cry is “Once I was blind, but now I see!” Funny, Saul’s experience was just the opposite.

Apart from him being a whole lot smarter than me, Stanley Hauerwas and I are similar in several ways. He loves cats and baseball, and he goes running. And there is another thing that the asshole and I have in common …

Once my synod had an Education Officer. Then the title was changed to Training Officer. I suppose next it will be The Facilitator. Followed by the Terminator.

I am beginning to change my mind about the ethics of assisted suicide. I mean with respect to the church. Except that soon assistance will be superfluous.

Matthew, Luke, and John, after reading Mark, were dissing the second evangelist. One of them sniggered, “He’s a few verses short of a gospel.”

Did you hear about the guy who went to a public lecture on penal substitution thinking that he was going to hear about state-of-the-art cosmetic surgery?

At American football games there is always some guy standing in the crowd holding a large placard with “John 3:16” written on it. The Mets are offering him a summer job at Citi Field – with the scripture “John 11:35”.

If you are a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran and find yourself on trial for being a conscientious objector, take the Fifth – Commandment.

Where would advocates of modern Just War theory be without Adolf Hitler?

The best explanation of John Milbank is that he is a Puritan. Disagree with J. Edgar Hoover and you were a communist. Disagree with John Milbank and you are a nihilist. As Mark Twain said, “To the pure, all things are unpure.”

Theological illiteracy is getting so bad in our churches that soon we will be referring to Jesus as “Whatshisname” and the Trinity as the “Threesome”.

A proposal for the translation of ekklesia: “kindergarten”.

If a lion could talk, I still wouldn’t have him to dinner.

Ben asks, “Why do we close our eyes when praying?” And he is right to object that praying is “not a withdrawal into the silent recesses of the self.” But we also close our eyes when we kiss, when we melt into the silent recesses of the other.

Suggested title for a brief introduction to theology by Ben Myers: A Short Story on Christian Doctrine.

Twelve common abbreviations in Paul’s emails

Salutation: MTFBWU
Praise: ^5!
Advice (modest): WAG
Advice (forthright): IMNSHO
After answering a question: HTH
Impatience: AWGTHTGTTA?
Mocking incomprehension: WTF?
me genoito: NFW
Reference to Judaizers: FUBAR
Response to boasters: BFD
On apostleship: GR&D
Valediction: TAFN

Thursday 24 March 2011

Great first sentences

Let me be honest with you for once. Almost nothing in the world gives me greater joy than a book with a good first sentence. I was discussing this with my eight-year-old daughter tonight, and we started rummaging among our bookshelves, looking for our favourite first sentences. For my money, the best first sentence ever written is the opening of Melville’s Moby-Dick. ‘Call me Ishmael.’

Here are some of my other favourites from fiction:
  • Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield: ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’
  • J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’
  • Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’
  • Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’
  • Peter Carey, Bliss: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.’
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….’
  • James Joyce, ‘A Painful Case’ (in Dubliners): ‘He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.’ (OK, I’m cheating: that is actually from the second paragraph of the story – but it’s one my favourite sentences of all time, so I couldn’t help including it.)
  • Jorge Luis Borges is a great first-sentence writer. His story ‘The Library of Babel’ starts like this: ‘The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries.’ And another story, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’, begins: ‘Like all men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave.’
  • Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away: ‘Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.’
  • Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories: ‘There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.’
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: ‘Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and reach other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.’ (I know, it's two sentences – but it's damn good!)
  • David Lodge, Changing Places: ‘High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.’
  • Anita Brookner, The Debut: ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.’
Scholars are not usually very good at giving their books a delightful first sentence (since most scholars believe boredom is a sign of intellectual seriousness). But there are some notable exceptions – for instance, C. S. Lewis begins his great book A Preface to Paradise Lost with these words: ‘The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.’ And another literary critic, James Wood, begins The Broken Estate: ‘The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst.’

As a rule, theologians are hopeless at this sort of thing (as James K. A. Smith observes in a recent post). But again there are, thank God, some exceptions. I’m thinking for instance of John Milbank, who has some artful and memorable opening sentences. Theology and Social Theory famously begins: ‘Once, there was no secular.’ And The Word Made Strange: ‘Today, theology is tragically too important.’ Stanley Hauerwas also has a good opening line to his recent memoir, Hannah's Child – evoking the tradition of the novel, he begins: ‘I did not intend to be “Stanley Hauerwas”.’

Karl Barth is of course legendary for his artful prefaces (he is, as a matter of fact, one of the real masters of the preface genre). His finest moments always come later in the prefaces, but he still has some cracking good first lines:
  • CD I/2: 'It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants.'
  • CD IV/2: 'I am sorry to have disappointed those (perhaps not a few) who had counted on taking this continuation of the Church Dogmatics with them on their summer or autumn holidays.'
And then there is the incomparable G. K. Chesterton, who begins his autobiography with this marvellous sentence: ‘Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgement, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.’ (OK, technically that was two sentences: but who’s counting?)

Anyway, my daughter also chose her own favourites from various children’s novels:
  • J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’
  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’
  • Kate Forsyth, The Puzzle Ring: ‘Hannah Rose Brown was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed.’
  • Tony Davis, Roland Wright, Future Knight: ‘These days it is considered rude to chop a man’s arm off with a battleaxe, even when you don’t like him.’
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’
  • C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ‘There was a boy called Eustance Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’
Which makes me think that we theologians could learn quite a lot from children's fiction.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Yet more doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Yesterday, séances; today, NDEs.

Hell’s Bell – a double-predestinarian responds to Love Wins.

Double or Nothing – an annihilationist responds to Love Wins.

Sign at the entrance to Hell: “Due to global warming, we have relocated to Pittsburgh.”

Man Well Drest: the Versace Guide to Prayer.

Have you ever noticed how some people pray freely by rote?

Some Christians, at prayer meetings, say they justwanna praise Jesus for this, and justwanna thank Jesus for that, and justwanna ask Jesus for the other thing. For Christ’s sake, I think, just go ahead and do it!

Of course God answers prayer. I have seen it happen. Once, indeed, at a prayer meeting of local evangelical church leaders. One pastor prayed and prayed and prayed to the Lord that we be delivered from cruelty, torture, and oppression. Then the meeting ended.

The shema of the postmodern church: “Hear, O Israel, get into tribes and share your stories.”

Every morning I look in the mirror to shave and feel immense self-loathing at the human being I have become. This Lent I finally decided to do something radical about it: I am growing a beard.

Augustine said that most sins were committed by people crying and groaning. That would explain the bishop of Hippo’s identification of sex with sin.

Whenever you hear a preacher preach on “unconditional” grace, make sure you can see both his hands.

A preacher once told me that he always times his sermons. I felt like telling him that he should try using a watch instead of a calendar.

In Britain Christians don’t believe in the fall, they believe in the autumn.

Imagine the crisis in American Christianity over the liturgical year if it were discovered that Jesus rose on Super Bowl Sunday.

The trinitarian theology of penal substitution: two people and a missing person.

Some people read the Sermon on the Mount as if Jesus were looking for their opinion.

Why have American right wing televangelists not been shouting that the earthquake and tsunami are God’s judgement on Japan? It’s the economy, stupid.

An elderly woman, recently widowed, once anxiously asked me how, when she died, she would find her husband in heaven amidst the multitude. I gently pulled her leg. “The problem,” I said, “won’t be locating but identifying him. Just remember, don’t go looking for an old bald guy with dentures.”

Silliness is the most neglected of virtues. Silliness is next to godliness.

What was God doing before he created the world? I suspect he was doing some forward planning and thinking about Holy Saturday.

The United Reformed Church will soon be launching a new evangelistic campaign based on the premise that “advertising is the language of our time”, and created to “cut through the platitudes and clichés that have so often characterised church communications.” That cemeterial sound is George Orwell turning in his grave.

The question isn’t WWJD but what would Peter do. Then just do the opposite.

If a Catholic priest drops the host, does he pick it up or help it up?

If the authors of an inerrant Bible took an exam on their subject, I guess an extra credit question would be rather pointless, wouldn’t it?

Ninety percent of the university consists of dark matter. That is not a misprint.

Saturday 19 March 2011

On prayer: fourteen theses

I’ve been staying all weekend at a Catholic monastery, which prompted some theses on prayer:

1. What is prayer? It is the eyes of the world looking back at God (Pavel Florensky).

2. Can theology penetrate into the mystery of prayer? Yes: theology burrows into prayer as the ant makes its tiny tunnels in the earth’s immense dark turning orb.

3. Once when I was sleeping, the sound of rain on the roof became, in my dream, the hammer of war drums beating in a jungle: a real sound, vibrating in my ears, echoed in the chamber of my dreams. In the same way, the vibration of eternity echoes in the chamber of our world when people pray.

4. Prayer is restlessness and silence and sadness. It is jubilation and a cup running over and the sound of all the gum trees clapping hands.

5. ‘We do not know how to pray’ (Rom 8:26). The whole uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth lies in this: that he knows how to pray, because he knows to whom he is speaking. His greatest miracle was not healing or walking on water or driving out devils, but teaching his followers to say, ‘Our Father’ (Luke 11).

6. Why do we close our eyes when praying? Prayer is not a turning inwards, not a withdrawal into the silent recesses of the self. Prayer is open-eyed attention. It is waiting all day on the shore for the glimpse of a rare bird. ‘You must wear your eyes out, as others their knees’ (R. S. Thomas).

7. Nothing could be further from the truth than the notion of prayer as a spontaneous inner glow or an uncontrollable gush of sentiment. Prayer is discipline, order, hardship, habit, obedience: whatever it is that makes up a life, that is what prayer requires.

8. Prayer and obedience are one. The monastery – that momentous institutionalisation of prayer – is founded on this truth. In order to pray, I bind myself to a rule, bend my will to another, submit to a grievous curtailment of the self. The vow of celibacy in many religious orders signifies this curtailment. There is some part of what it means to be human that is crushed in prayer. For the person bound to prayer, it would not be right to represent life as fruition, satisfaction, fulfilment.

9. At the same time, there is no greater freedom than the freedom to pray. Does God command us to pray? Yes – just as you might give water to a thirsty man, and command him to drink. God gives us permission to speak to God: that is the whole liberty of the gospel.

10. ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in’ (Leonard Cohen). The life that prays is an ontological fissure, a crack in being. In prayer, shards of light break through, and the creatures that dwell in darkness rub their dazzled eyes.

11. What is it that really sustains the church’s life and witness? Our sacramental hierarchy? Our teachers and clerics? Our projects and resources? Our thick books of doctrine and law? Or is the whole church perhaps upheld by one old woman who shuts herself away all day to cry to God with sighs too deep for words?

12. God is colour-blind. All that is powerful and wise and impressive, all those things blur together as a single colour – God can hardly make out the difference between them. Only the small, secret things are clear and distinct to God’s poor eyesight. The secrecy of prayer makes us visible to God: ‘your Father sees what is done in secret’ (Matt 6:6).

13. We often complain about unanswered prayer. But if sometimes God doesn’t listen, or doesn’t hear, or doesn’t answer, we ought to be relieved. The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind – and Job was lucky to survive the ordeal. Nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of an answered prayer. ‘For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’ (Annie Dillard).

14. Sometimes I think prayer is all that matters. Sometimes I hardly dare to pray.

On Kindle

Speaking of Kim Fabricius, you can now get him on Kindle:

Wednesday 16 March 2011

More doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

How did Jesus overcome Satan in the wilderness? By proof-texting a proof-texter. That always drives them nuts.

Right-wing Christians are fond of quoting Matthew 26:11a: “you will always have the poor with you.” Thus they turn prophecy into principle – and confirm the truth of Matthew 26:11b: “but you will not always have me.”

Here is a curious thing. Liberal Christians find it hard to believe that God raised the dead Jesus, yet accept without difficulty that God created the world. After the latter, you’d think the former would be a piece of cake.

The New Atheists have come to their senses. Having finally realised that hurling abuse at believers is strategically incompetent, they are now trying flattery. For example, last year Christopher Hitchens called Rowan Williams a “sheep-faced loon”.

I would like to help Christians in the UK who say they suffer from persecution substantiate their case – by feeding them to the lions.

WWJD? Ask Oprah.

Love wins. Fundamentalists in Florida are demanding a recount.

If due to deforestation bears no longer shit in the woods, will the pope still be Catholic?

Finally finishing Douglas Campbell’s massive The Deliverance of God is rather like completing a marathon: you’re deliriously glad you did it – and fucking relieved it’s over.

My wife once threw an ashtray at me. It whizzed by my head and took a chunk out of a brick wall. That is what grace is like – except God doesn’t miss.

A good reader may be a bad writer, but a bad reader will be a bad writer.

Losing your faith is part of the pilgrimage of faith.

Fencing the table works: it keeps out Jesus.

Were we ever to reach unanimous agreement on issues of faith and order, the age of ecumenism would come to an end. So would the church.

If Christians start saying that God is love all the down, where the hell will it end?

Are people who pray happier and healthier than those who don’t? Only if they are not doing it right.

Suggested title for a biography of Herbert McCabe: One for the Road to Emmaus.

Liars exploit truth, bullshitters exploit lies.

Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Take it from me, Lord, blind people actually walk along together quite safely. It’s when twenty-twenty twits try to help us that ditches become dangerous.” And Jesus said, “Oh.”

Recently a minister in the United Reformed Church wrote an article in which he admitted that while he didn’t understand Paul’s theology, he was quite sure that the apostle was an entrepreneur. Well, he was half right.

God never punishes the successful. He doesn’t need to.

Koan: choosing a vocation.

The first sermon of every preacher has the same title: the Summa Theologica.

Experience may be the best teacher, but it’s a lousy learner.

I used to think that Christians who put the fish symbol on their cars were prats. Now I think they are simply being considerate – by letting people know that there is a crap driver at the wheel.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Shusaku Endo: Christ and Japan

The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo – described by Graham Greene as one of the century's greatest writers – was always wrestling with the relation between Christianity and Japan. In an interview, he said:

"But after all it seems to me that Catholicism is not a solo, but a symphony. It fits, of course, man's sinless side, but unless a religion can find a place for man's sinful side in the ensemble, it is a false religion. If I have trust in Catholicism, it is because I find in it much more possibility than in any other religion for presenting the full symphony of humanity. The other religions have almost no fullness; they have but solo parts. Only Catholicism can present the full symphony. And unless there is in that symphony a part that corresponds to Japan's mud swamp, it cannot be a true religion. What exactly this part is – that is what I want to find out" (cited in Emi Mase-Hasegawa, Christ in Japanese Culture: Theological Themes in Shusaku Endo's Literary Works, 72).

Endo's 1966 novel Silence portrays the visit of a Portuguese Jesuit priest to Japan in the 17th century. In one scene, the priest looks out over a ruined village, and prays: "The village had been burnt to the ground; and its inhabitants had been completely dispersed. The sea and the land were silent as death; only the dull sound of the waves lapping against the boat broke the silence of the night. Why have you abandoned us so completely? he prayed in a weak voice. Even the village was constructed for you; and have you abandoned it in its ashes? ... Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me? Why? At least tell me why. We are not strong men like Job who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial. There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering. So he prayed. But the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence."

Monday 7 March 2011

Modern Theology issue: Faith, rationality, and the passions

Modern Theology has just released a cracking good special issue on faith, rationality, and the passions, edited by Sarah Coakley:

  • William T. Cavanaugh, THE INVENTION OF FANATICISM (pages 226–237)
  • John Milbank, HUME VERSUS KANT: FAITH, REASON AND FEELING (pages 276–297)
  • Thomas Dixon, REVOLTING PASSIONS (pages 298–312)
  • Gerald L. Clore, PSYCHOLOGY AND THE RATIONALITY OF EMOTION (pages 325–338)
And speaking of special issues, the journal Theology in Scotland has a new issue devoted to the life and theology of T. F. Torrance: Jason has all the details.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Blessed are the homeless

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Have you ever been homeless, spent time without a roof over your head? I have. In the autumn of 1971, in Amsterdam, no money, my best mate and I slept in a derelict building for a couple of weeks. Not a pleasant experience. Fear of intruders, fear of the police, but, above all, it’s the cold I remember most – we had only our Moroccan burnooses for cover – the interminable sleepless wait for sunrise and warmth. That was for only a fortnight. But for some people it’s a way of life – and death.

That’s one kind of homelessness – the “homeless and broke” kind. Here is another kind. Remember ET, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi film? ET is an extra-terrestrial who, stranded on earth, befriends a lonely little boy who lives in a fatherless household, whose name is Elliott (observe that Elliott’s name begins with “e” and ends with “t”). ET begins to learn the local language – English – by listening to words that Elliott’s little sister repeats as she watches Sesame Street. And the first word he picks up – home; and with Elliott’s help he builds a device to “phone home” (a phrase BT was quick to deploy in a famous advertising campaign). The rest of the film is all about how ET finally heads for home – and also about how Elliott himself gets home, in the sense that he ceases to feel “alien-ated”. Why was ET at the time the most financially successful film ever? Because, I think, it tapped into deep feelings of rootlessness (the Emmy Award-winning TV mini-series Roots ran five years before ET) and a longing for home – wherever that is.

Here is a third, historical take on homelessness: the Palestinian people. In 1915, during the First World War, Britain made a deal with the Sharif of Mecca: in exchange for an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, the promise of British support for an independent Arab kingdom when the war was over. But then, in 1917, Britain reneged on the deal and issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to support the establishment of a Jewish state – in Palestine. Here, as Arthur Koestler put it, was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation. It was a formula for a catastrophe. Fast-forward to 1947-48, the UN partition plan, and the blessing of the establishment of the state of Israel for the Jewish people becomes a curse for the Palestinian people – 700,000 uprooted, evicted. Palestinians themselves call this massive dislocation the Nakba, which is Arabic for – “Catastrophe”. Over sixty years later and one generation of homeless, refugee people has become three. There is no reason to be optimistic that it will not become four.

Do these varied experiences of homelessness have anything in common? I think they do. A sense of isolation and vulnerability for one thing, and, conversely, a yearning for safety and peace: a roof over your head and an electric fire, the return to a world from which you’ve been separated, or a land from which you’ve been forcibly expelled. You Welsh will understand: hiraeth – a connection with the land, the valleys and the hills, a sense of “belonging” (the title of a rather good Welsh soap), and if you have the misfortune to live beyond Offa’s Dyke, chronic homesickness.

And yet, without belittling in the least all these feelings, or the terrible life of the homeless or the landless, indeed praying for their rectification, I wonder: for Christians, is not homelessness a metaphor for the way of life that we sign up to at baptism? How interesting, and noteworthy, that Peter addresses his first letter to “God’s chosen peoples who live as refugees [NRSV: exiles]” (1:1). And later on in the letter (2:11), he appeals to his readers as “strangers and refugees” (NRSV: exiles). And in the Epistle of Diognetus, a second century Christian writing, the author says that while “Christians are indistinguishable from other people by nationality, language, or customs,” nevertheless “there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through… Any country,” the author declares, “can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.” On this reading of discipleship, the church is an outpost for pioneers colonising an alien territory in which we can never be at home, because, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), “we are citizens of heaven.”

There has been a lot of talk over the past decade or so about the church at the end of Christendom being a church in exile, often rather glib talk, in my view, because it has neglected to acknowledge the Old Testament significance of exile, and the traumatic experience of exile, namely, God’s judgement on Israel, God’s punishment of Israel by their dispersal to Babylon. Without this recognition, it is easy for Christians to slip into a victim mentality, in which we blame church decline on secularism or atheism. Without this recognition, we rather too quickly start “re-imagining the future” (as the process of renewal was called in the URC in Wales) without confessing and repenting the sins of our past – sins mainly of taking too much for granted, sins of apathy and lethargy, the sins of civic religion.

And then there are the three dangers of living in exile. The first is nostalgia, pining for the good old days and trying to re-inscribe them in the reality of today. But – remember King Canute – you can’t command the tides of time to withdraw. The second danger is withdrawal, disengaging from the big bad world of today altogether and circling the wagons. This is the sectarian option and it is not only cowardly and faithless, it is also a recipe for further decline and ultimate disappearance. And then there is the third danger, assimilation, whereby we think we can save the church by aping the ways of the world, as if all we’ve got to do is to market and manage the church more strategically and effectively to be “successful”. But then the customer, not the gospel, becomes sovereign, and though the church gain the whole world, it loses its soul.

What then do I suggest? I suggest what I suggest that Jesus himself and the New Testament suggest: that it is by living in exile that Christians find their true home, that living in exile, which begins as a judgement, actually turns out to be a blessing, turns out to be our vocation. Remember Jesus himself was homeless, permanently homeless, itinerant, from his time as a child with his refugee family in Egypt, to his vagabond ministry when he says: “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lie down and rest” (Luke 9:58).

And what do we do as a church in exile, a church of permanent dispersion, diaspora? Exactly what the exilic prophet Jeremiah, in a letter, told the Israelites to do in Babylon. While false prophets were engaged in a cover-up and calling for a return to the land (preaching old-time religious revival, if you like), Jeremiah modestly, but radically and bravely, advised: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). Which is not to romanticise exile – far from it: Jeremiah recognised that a deracinated, decentred life is lonely and hard; that swimming against the stream takes determination and energy; that being mocked and mistreated erodes your self-esteem and confidence. Nevertheless, exile is just the right place to prune and refine, to explore and experiment, to make tactical critiques of prevailing cultural norms, and to practice that peculiar counter-cultural way of being human called “discipleship” which is embodied in the Sermon on the Mount. Freed from the compulsion to be in charge, and from the delusion that we control our own destiny, we can get on with being faithful, being Christian, being church, being mission.

Many in the church are still in denial about exile, or we grieve our losses, yes, but don’t repent our failures. I think it’s about time we lose the self-pity and move on – and out: to embrace our homelessness, and travel on with the fearless conviction and hope of a people called and sent to do just one thing: to bear witness to the new humanity, the new creation, disclosed in the eruption of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the homeless” is a beatitude truly in keeping with the teaching of our Lord.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Densil Morgan, Barth Reception in Britain

A review by Kim Fabricius

D. Densil Morgan, Barth Reception in Britain (T&T Clark 2010)

This is a learned book, informed by wide and deep reading of both Barth and those who received him – and those who received him not. But it is not just a history of ideas: the theology is concisely socially and culturally located.

This is an important book, a kind of exercise in reader-response criticism, perhaps not unique in tracing the history of what later or modern theologians have made of an earlier one – Fergus Kerr’s excellent After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (2002) comes to mind – but it is nevertheless rare in the thickness and colour of its thread. Indeed I hope it may serve as a paradigm and inspiration for others to do the research and writing on, say, Bonhoeffer reception in the UK and US.

This is an exciting book. Morgan cites Hans Frei’s observation that “reading ‘Barthians’, unlike Barth himself, can often be painfully boring.” This book is not boring. It reads like a road movie, moving in two tracks as it follows both Barth’s own Porsche of theological development, as well as the ensuing vehicles in the inside lane, upmarket and second-rate, that keep up, break down, or turn into cul-de-sacs. And if it starts off slowly, that’s because the reception was slow – Adolf Keller, the Swiss ecumenist and conveyor of continental theology to Britain and America, was the herald of coming good – but it quickly speeds up until by the Second World War, you are watching a thrilling, exhilarating chase.

This is also a fair book. Morgan is a theologian who clearly holds Barth in esteem and affection, but although he is not averse to the odd swipe (as he puts it in one instance) at the “spectacularly wrongheaded” response to his mentor, his criticisms are always judicious and often delivered with wry Welsh wit. Indeed the author is clever enough to provide sufficient quotation to let the good run free while the ugly are hoisted by their own petard.

The major disciples are all here, from Edwin Hoskyns and Daniel Jenkins, to T. F. Torrance and Colin Gunton. So too are theologians and church leaders who may and should be known in Britain but about whom the response “Who?” may be forgiven among non-Brits: the Scot John McConnachie, the Englishman Nathanial Micklem, and the Welshman John Edward Daniel, for example. And then there are the “minor” figures that turn out to be not so minor at all, not least the contingent of Welshmen who were as fired by Barth as the phalanx of Scots, but who thought, taught, and preached in the language of angels.

The usual suspicions are all here too: in the post-Römerbrief years, concerns about human agency in Barth’s ethics, about the impact of his rediscovery of eschatology and the divine transcendence on history and experience, about his rejection of natural theology and alleged cultural pessimism; in the post-war years, Nieburhian dismissals of Barth’s neo-orthodoxy and Cold War politics, and evangelical distrust of his soteriology and even the state of his soul (the famous Welsh fundamentalist Martyn Lloyd-Jones virtually asking, “But has he been saved?”); and during the sixties, the patronising liberal banalities about his datedness and irrelevance in a “world come of age”.

And there are surprises, like the indolence of the English Presbyterians in contrast to Congregationalists, and the enthusiasm of certain Anglo-Catholics rather than evangelical Anglicans, during the initial stages of Barth reception in the 1920s. There is drama, like the eyewitness account of the Welsh student Ivor Oswy Davies on the public dismissal of Barth from his teaching post in Bonn in December 1934: “there, in that ritual of darkness, I witnessed the University of Bonn losing its very soul.” And there is hope that the tide-turning resurgence of British Barth studies in the late twentieth century might continue to follow the trajectory on which we find it in the second decade of the second millennium.

Are there no flaws? None as far as I can see in the execution of what Morgan set out to do, what he calls “an exercise in Bangor theology”, a descriptive history of British Barth reception (though I wish he himself had followed the trajectory beyond the nine-page “Postlude: Barth in Britain 1968-86”). Morgan is a fly on the wall, and only occasionally a mosquito. If you want a Barthian bee making honey, you will have to go to Morgan’s delightful The Humble God: The Basics of Christian Belief (2005). But I do have one huge complaint: Barth was a great admirer of Bonhoeffers’ The Cost of Discipleship, but I don’t think he had in mind paying £65 for a book. (So diolch yn fawr for the review copy!)

Note: This review will also be published later this year in the Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

On Pentecostal women (that is to say, ladies)

Anybody who was brought up, as I was, in the clamorous joy and madness of Pentecostalism, will know something that ought to have been obvious all along: that the Christian faith is really sustained not by its ecclesiastical hierarchies or its salaried religionists, but by its women.

One of the marks of Pentecostalism is the presence of strong women. You will find them in every Pentecostal church: praying in the spirit without ceasing; worshipping with solemn exuberance, as though they alone must bear vicariously the whole joy of salvation; interpreting their thumb-worn leather Bibles, which are always extensively underlined, annotated, and committed to memory; issuing swift, infallible, ruthlessly imposing moral judgments; and, through all this, patiently inscribing their own faith on the bodies of their children. (That, incidentally, explains the remarkable contrast in traditional Pentecostal gatherings between the uninhibited expressiveness of the women and the polite docility of their neatly dressed children.)

As a boy, I was often told that the most important person in our church was not the preacher or the musicians or even the swaggering itinerant evangelists who so often darkened our doors, but Mrs Loy, an 80-something (and later 90-something) Chinese woman who had devoted her life to prayer. In all the years I was there, I rarely heard Mrs Loy say anything, but every Sunday morning her tiny arthritic fists could be seen raised high in palsied worship, her little balding head shining with goodness and joy. Sometimes during worship she would deliver a message in tongues, and an awed silence would fall across the congregation like a blanket. To this day, I don't know what those tremulous glossolalic homilies meant, but instinctively I knew – as everyone knew – that they were the most important things ever spoken in our midst. Not because we understood them, but because they came from the heart of Mrs Loy. She was, I forgot to say, the pastor's mother.

Such women are the engine room of the church. To a great extent, even the formal power structures depend on their secret society, their prayers and prophecies and discerning of spirits. They exercise a tremendous social and theological power, even in churches where the official theology is repressive and the official power rests solely in the hands of men. All this is, as I said, explicit and transparent in Pentecostalism – but isn’t the same thing true in churches semper et ubique?

Here, perhaps, lies the explanation of a strange fact that has often puzzled me. Why is it that churches persistently refer not to women, but to ladies – the “ladies’ group”, the “ladies’ Bible study”, the “ladies’ morning tea”, and so on? As far as I can tell, the church is one of the only cultural institutions – another being the public restroom – that still favours this quaint terminology.

But truths lie buried in language. The word “lady” comes from the Old English hlaefdige (literally “bread kneader”), a woman of high status to whom one owes obedience – the wife of a lord for example, or the head of a household. In popular piety, the term was used to designate the Mother of God, “Our Lady”, the one to whom our homage is due (in Old English, the Latin domina is translated hlaefdige). Looking down from the cross, Christ calls his mother “woman” (Jn 19:26); when we address her, she is always “Lady”.

Is this, then, the reason for that curious ecclesiastical archaism, whereby women are addressed as “ladies”? Is this why an assembled group of women is convoked under the fearful nomination of “Ladies’ Group”? Is this the church’s subliminal recognition of where the real secret of its power lies – not in the young men with their furious ambitions or the old men with their weary dignities, but in the hlaefdige? For is this not the mark of the hlaefdige, the Lady, that she governs the whole household and makes every servant tremble, all the while indulgently allowing her husband the idle vanity of believing himself the sole lord and master of the manor? Is it any different in the church?

That’s why there is no greater comedy, nothing more rib-ticklingly ironic, no greater instance of institutional slapstickery, than a church (like the Pentecostal church where I grew up) that restricts positions of power to – of all people – the men!


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