Thursday 28 April 2011

Systematic theology job: Geneva

In his Confessions, Augustine asks the beautiful, aching question: "Do we remember happiness as one who has seen Carthage remembers it?" I have never been to Carthage: but I have been to Lake Geneva.

I mentioned the other day that theologian, historian, and grand amateur de jazz Christophe Chalamet will soon be leaving Fordham for Geneva. Christophe also informs me of a job opening at the University of Geneva's Faculty of Protestant Theology. The position involves working on a doctoral dissertation in systematic theology, as well as working as a theological assistant (e-learning, research support, administration, etc).

The position is nearly full-time (80%), and pays around 50,000 Swiss francs per annum (about 38,000 euros). Applicants must have excellent French-English, a Masters degree or equivalent, and a strong interest in 20th-century and contemporary theology. Further details are available here.

Monday 25 April 2011

Off the Shelf: six types of reading

Last time, there were various comments about reading habits. So in this video I provide a typology of six types of reading.

Books mentioned in this video:

And since I've mentioned Chesterton's book on Aquinas, here's a delightful account of how the book was written – this is an excerpt from Dale Ahlquist, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (Ignatius Press 2000), chapter 9:

When G. K. Chesterton was commissioned to write a book about St. Thomas Aquinas, even his strongest supporters and greatest admirers were a little worried. But they would have been a lot more worried if they had known how he actually wrote the book.

Chesterton had already written acclaimed studies of Robert Browning, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Chaucer, and St. Francis of Assisi. Nonetheless, there was a great deal of anxiety even among Chesterton's admirers when in 1933 he agreed to take on the Angelic Doctor of the Church, the author of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Without consulting any texts whatsoever, Chesterton rapidly dictated about half the book to his secretary, Dorothy Collons. Then he suddenly said to her, “I want you to go to London and get me some books.”

“What books?” asked Dorothy.

I don't know”, said G. K.

So Dorothy did some research and brought back a stack of books on St. Thomas. G. K. flipped through a couple of books in the stack, took a walk in his garden, and then, without ever referring to the books again, proceeded to dictate the rest of his book to Dorothy.

Many years later, when Evelyn Waugh heard this story, he quipped that Chesterton never even read the Summa Theologica, but merely ran his fingers across the binding and absorbed everything in it.

[...] And what kind of book did he write? Étienne Gilson, probably the most highly respected scholar of St. Thomas in the twentieth century, a man who devoted his whole life to studying St. Thomas, had this to say about Chesterton's book: “I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas.”

Rowan Williams: a letter to a six-year-old

Speaking of Rowan Williams, I was quite touched by a news story in The Telegraph.

A six-year-old Scottish girl named Lulu wrote a letter to God: “To God, How did you get invented?” Lulu's father, who is not a believer, sent her letter to various church leaders: the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (no reply), and the Scottish Catholics (who sent a theologically complex reply). He also sent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent the following letter in reply:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan
Now that's what I call real theology! Isn't this exactly why we need theological specialists: not to make the faith more complicated and obscure, but to help us grasp how simple it really is?

Saturday 23 April 2011

Rowan Williams: three lectures on Narnia

This year, Rowan Williams' Holy Week Lectures were devoted to the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis. The lectures are available online:

Lecture 1: 'Not a tame lion'
Lecture 2: 'I only tell you your own story'
Lecture 3: 'Bigger inside than outside'

When my daughter and I sat down to listen to the first lecture, she turned to me, wide-eyed, and said: 'He even sounds like a character from Narnia!'

Friday 22 April 2011

Good Friday sermon: lose your faith

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (reposted from Holy Week 2008)

There is a lot of twaddle and guff talked during Holy Week. A few years ago I heard a Good Friday sermon – some of you heard it too – in which it was suggested that Jesus, being a carpenter, in order to distract his attention and ease his pain on the cross, may well have admired the quality of its wood. As if our Lord was thinking, “Nice bit of teak this. It’d make a great desk for the study.” It was positively Pythonesque.

No guff and twaddle today. Today I’m going to try to speak shocking, scandalous, scalding truth, say outrageous, even sacrilegious things. You will probably be too polite to heckle or jeer me, but if you walk out on me I shall consider it the highest compliment. I thought of having the elders hand out eggs for to you to throw at me, but pitied the poor cleaners. But eggs are nothing compared to the darts I’m going to fire at you. It’s time to attack your faith, wound it, leave it bleeding, dying, dead – just like the guy on the cross.

Let’s start with some cherished beliefs. For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus suffering more horribly than anyone else. But how could we possibly know that? Crucifixion? Yes, a terrible, terrible form of torture and execution. But Jesus’ was only one among thousands and thousands of crucifixions carried out under the so-called Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – when gibbets would stretch for miles down the Apian Way. And the death of Jesus – mercifully swift it was, he expired by mid-afternoon, most usually languished for days. Besides, after the Inquisition, after Auschwitz and the Gulags, after the killing fields in southeast Asia, the tribal slaughter in Rwanda, the mass graves in the Balkans, how can anyone possibly presume to compare national atrocities and personal tragedies, let alone grade them according to some calculus of pain?

For example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus facing his death more courageously than anyone else. But clearly this is special pleading. And didn’t the first Christians know it – which is why they were hesitant about sensationalising the death of Jesus in terms of martyrdom. As pagans were quick to point out, rather smugly, Jesus sweating blood in Gethsemane, and crying out in agony on Calvary, compares rather unfavourably with the great philosopher Socrates on death row, calmly drinking the hemlock as he reminds a friend – his last words – to remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of heath. For Socrates death was the moment of release, for Jesus a time of despair.

And for example: that our redemption was achieved by Jesus dying at the hands of evil men, particularly “the Jews”. What self-serving propaganda! And what a perverse fillip to the church’s long and shameful history of anti-semitism. No, it was not the bestial but the best that killed Jesus. The state in all its glory and religion at its most awesome killed Jesus: not the mob but the upholders of public order, not the wicked but the standard-bearers of morality. Yes, the trial was conducted with unseemly haste and the evidence was selectively marshalled, but the defendant incriminated himself, confessed even, so (if you like) there were no grounds for appeal. For Jesus did undermine a religious system based on law and cult, and Jesus did threaten a political regime based on violence and retribution. Jesus acted with freedom and broke the rules, embracing the dirty, the deviant, and the dangerous. And Jesus prophetically unmasked the mighty pretensions of the local procurator and publicly subverted Caesar’s claim to lordship. Jesus really did force the hands of Caiaphas and Pilate and leave them no choice but to get rid of him. Better that one man die than that the entire social order be at risk – the tried and trusted scapegoat principle. No doubt about it, this peasant troublemaker from up north profoundly threatened the status quo. He had to go.

So: for one Holy Week forget about the suffering of Jesus, the courage of Jesus, the wickedness of it all. Forget even about the dying of Jesus: it is not to the crucifix, or even to the deposition, that I would direct you – no! Rather look at the man – dead – gaze upon the corpse of Christ, fix your eyes on his cold and rigid body, laid out on a slab, already showing signs of decomposition. I am thinking of Hans Holbein’s painting “Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”. The Russian author Dostoevsky saw the painting, in a museum in Basel, stopping on his way to Geneva, and forever after it haunted him like a nightmare. He describes it in his great novel The Idiot. The character Prince Myshkin says: “Why some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!”

This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son.

No one puts it more starkly – or more honestly and truthfully – than Bonhoeffer. We must recognize, he wrote from prison, “that we have to learn to live in the world ‘as if God were not here’. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… God would have us know that we must live as men and women who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us… Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross” – and then down from the cross and into the grave. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” God a Super-Power? That god is a demon, the Devil. If that god is your Lord, this week is a call for “regime change” (Walter Brueggemann).

So, yes, lose your faith! For as with life, so with faith: only those who lose it will find it. Or rather may find it. Faith is a risk, and discipleship demands that we learn to live with insecurity and uncertainty, setting out on a journey without a map, with companions who are as lost as we are, following a leader who is always way ahead of us, beckoning mysteriously, “Follow me!”, and then vanishing just as we arrive. God is mystery, ineffable mystery, naming a reality that we know, but the more we know, the more we are forced to un-know and rethink everything we thought we knew.

But hang on, Kim, frankly you’ve lost us. We don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, it sounds crazy, foolish. You’ve accomplished the remarkable achievement of making someone like Rowan Williams sound lucid, simple, straightforward. And you’re supposed to be a preacher, and isn’t the whole point of the sermon to make it easier to understand God, to increase our faith, so that we can go back to the world feeling edified, uplifted, and ready to share the Good News? Not today it’s not. Today I can’t help you. This week no one can help you. Come Friday, not even God – especially not God – can help you. And come Saturday, God himself is lying in a tomb. Emptiness. Zero. Nothing. But might it be a pregnant emptiness, a significant zero, a silent nothing that yet says everything? (after Alan E. Lewis). We shall have to wait till Easter. Only then shall we learn that this Week is Holy, and its Friday Good. Only then may we just find a new faith rising from the old faith that I pray you will lose today.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Karl Barth miscellanies

Here are some Barth miscellanies – if you know of any other upcoming events, feel free to add a comment.

Christophe Chalamet (whose book I reviewed here) will be leaving his position at Fordham (and the jazz clubs of New York City) for an appointment as professeur associé de théologie systématique at the University of Geneva. Christophe is a very fine Barth scholar – so students can now consider the lovely city of Geneva as a destination for Barth studies. Congratulations, Christophe!

This year's Barth conference is on Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue will be held in Princeton from 19-22 June. It's co-hosted by the Centre for Barth Studies and the Thomistic Institute. Speakers include John Bowlin, Holly Taylor Coolman, Robert Jenson, Keith Johnson, Guy Mansini, Amy Marga, Bruce McCormack, Richard Schenk, Joseph Wawrykow, and Thomas Joseph White. I've heard a rumour that the conference might even be webcast this year, which would be terrific.

A new review of John Flett's important new book, The Witness of God; and another one of David Haddorff's book on ethics; and another one on David Guretzk's book on Barth and the filioque.

Finally, since I read you Mark Twain's remarks about health the other day, here's a comment from Barth on the topic (from CD III/4, emailed to me by Jonathan Freeston):
We are indeed appalled at the many people who look upon health itself as a lofty or supreme goal, and “live for their health” alone. Lovingly cherishing their bodies or even their souls, and being constantly interested in what is good, less good or bad for them, they raise such things as sun, air and water, the power of different herbs and fruits, the beauty of a tanned skin and the dynamic strength of well-tempered muscles, and perhaps the possibilities of medical and psychological skill, and even quackery, to the level of beneficent demons to which they offer a devotion and credulity, and which they serve with a concentration and enthusiasm, that can only show them to be the unhealthiest persons.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Call for papers: Jacob Taubes and Christian theology

There's a call for papers for an AAR panel on Jacob Taubes and Christian theology (deadline 31 April). The organizers especially invite proposals for papers that engage in constructive theological reflection with the themes of Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology (2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments toward a Critique of Historical Reason (2009) – both great books, by the way.

Monday 18 April 2011

Theology FAIL: Heaven, the videogame

Are you tired of waiting around for the rapture? God knows I am. That's why I was so relieved to discover Heaven: The Game. "Walk the streets of Gold, open the pearly gate, see the creatures of revelation, explore the new Jerusalem" – you can even meet Jesus and "enter the Throne of God himself".

Best of all, on these adventures you'll be accompanied every step of the way by your very own guardian angel, Axis (pictured). And damn, does she look fine in those skin-tight robes of white and that celestially sexy lace-up girdle. The life of the world to come has never been more enticing.

You can see a video preview here. It looks, as we young folks used to say, totally wicked.

Somehow all this reminds me of something my young daughter once said. A Sunday school teacher asked the children what they have to do in order to get to heaven, and my little girl raised her hand and replied meekly: "Die?"

FAIL submitted by Paul Anderson.

Friday 15 April 2011

Off the shelf: video podcast

Lately I've found it hard to keep up posting about new books I'm reading – even though I'm always reading books. So this is an experimental new "Off the Shelf" segment: I've recorded a short video talking about some of the things I've been reading lately, new books and old.

I dislike talking into a camera like this – but if you find this sort of thing enjoyable, let me know and I might do some more video-posts from time to time.

Books mentioned in this video:

Worst first lines

We had a splendid good time talking about best first lines. But today my wife suggested I should also do a post about the worst first lines. Her nomination is pretty hard to beat – it's the opening sentence of a Katy Perry song called "Firework" (which Wikipedia describes as "a self-empowerment anthem with inspirational lyrics"). Here are the inspiring and self-empowering first lines:
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind,
Wanting to start again?
In just three lines, Katy Perry has achieved something that I never would have dreamed possible. She has managed to vulgarise that-than-which-nothing-more-vulgar-can-be-conceived: the plastic bag.

Brothers and sisters, until I heard those lines I was seriously tempted to believe in universal salvation. But I have turned aside from my errors: nobody who writes like that will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday 10 April 2011

On violence and children's stories

My children love adventure stories, and in their games together they often recreate scenes from their favourite stories. In the comfort of the living room, in the darkness of the bedroom, or in the eerie twilight of the backyard, they have been Peter Pan and a lawless crew of pirates, Bilbo Baggins and a ferocious dragon, Aslan and the white witch, a scarecrow and a tin man and a cowardly lion; they have slain giants and battled dwarves and roamed beneath the earth and peered down on tiny cities from a soaring carpet.

There are people – mostly people with PhDs who have never met a real child – who say the old fairytales and adventures are too violent. For my part, I tend to avoid contemporary children’s writing because it is, for the most part, not violent enough. Only an expert could think that what children really need is stories about tolerance, multiculturalism, sensitivity to difference, and all the abominable boredom of what is called ‘life skills’.

Anyone who has ever met a child will know that they inhabit a world of magic, monsters, and mayhem; that their freedoms and fantasies are rambunctious, loud, bright and brutal as an army with banners; that what they really need are tales of giants and dragons, cruel strangers and enchantments, evil fairies and magnificent hordes of treasure, animals that talk and children that thwart their wicked stepmothers. They do not want to know how to be nice to a lonely old woman in the woods: they want to know how to trick her and shove her in the oven. Or if I may speak biblically: they don’t want stories about obeying your parents and respecting your elders; they want a story about the youngest son who sneaks away from home and slays a giant with his trusty sling and five small stones. That is how children learn to navigate the dangerous rocks of that other country, that unimaginable foreign place where adults dwell; that is how they practise their moral agency, how they learn to be free.

Our handwringing educational moralisers not only misunderstand childhood, they also misunderstand the relation between stories and morality. The teenager who brings a pistol to school one day and guns down all his classmates was not reared on the good honest violence of the old adventure tales, but on computer games where acts of violence occur devoid of any human context or any narrative of friendship, bravery, and noble deeds. He was also reared, let us not forget, on a steady diet of sententious animated films, with their paralysing niceties of environmentalism, postcolonialism, tolerance, and Being True to Yourself. Our culture is blighted by the unprecedented mass production of such children’s stories – not by people who know or like children, but by film corporations with their focus groups, their market research, and their cynical cold statistics about what parents want and what they are willing to pay for.

Lately my children and I have been reading The Silver Chair, the sixth book in C. S. Lewis’s thrilling Narnia series. It is a very good children’s book, because it has all those things that children really love: fantastic talking animals, a strange unvisitable country, an unthinkably evil witch, a hideous reptile, ghastly great giants that cook and eat children, brave knights in glistening armour, enchantments of blackest magic, and, most important, the exhilarating absence of adult supervision, adult instruction, adult moralising. It is a good children’s story because it gives you not what children ought to like, but what they actually do like.

Today we read the chapter where the witch turns herself into a gigantic serpent, green as poison, with flaming eyes and flickering forked tongue. The loathsome creature coils its body round the prince, ‘ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight’. But our heroes rush at the snake with their swords. They strike its neck, and with repeated blows hack off its head. ‘The horrible thing went on coiling and moving like a bit of wire long after it had died; and the floor, as you may imagine, was a nasty mess.’

After we had read this bracing and edifying narrative, my little boy wandered off to talk to the dog, while my two daughters set about re-enacting the scene in the living room. My older daughter dressed up like an evil serpent, while her sister and I took up our swords and pursued the vile creature across the room. The house was soon filled with all the blood and clamour of battle: the serpent’s horrible hissing, the flashing of noble weapons, the appalling sound of that evil neck being hacked in two, the bitter cries of triumph and defeat.

That was when my little boy sauntered back into the room, carrying a handful of sticks and chewing on something he’d picked up from the ground outside. Amid the wild brutality, the vicious hissing and thrashing about, the bloodcurdling shouts and warlike screams, he scratched his head and remarked idly, ‘Oh, are we playing Mums and Dads again?’


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