Friday 27 May 2011

Michael Ramsey Prize winner: David Bentley Hart

This year the prestigious Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing has gone to David Bentley Hart for his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). The £10,000 prize was awarded today by Rowan Williams.

Williams described David Bentley Hart not only as "a theologian of exceptional quality" but also "a brilliant stylist":
This book takes no prisoners in its response to fashionable criticisms of Christianity. But what makes it more than just another contribution to controversy is the way he shows how the most treasured principles and values of compassionate humanism are rooted in the detail of Christian doctrine. I am pleased that we have identified a prize winning book that is so distinctive in its voice. It is never bland. It will irritate some, but it will also challenge and inspire readers inside and outside the church. No one could pretend after reading this that Christian theology was lacking in intellectual and imaginative force or in relevance to the contemporary world.
It's true: Hart is an extraordinary prose stylist and a brilliant controversialist. He's a unique voice in contemporary theology. Grumpy, elegant, outrageous, and delightful – often all at the same time. Though this isn't my favourite of his books – I don't think it's as good as The Doors of the Sea, for example – it's great to see his writing recognised in this way.

The other shortlisted books were:
Has anyone read that last one by Robert Hughes? It sounds really impressive, but I haven't got a copy yet. If anyone has read it, I'd love to know what you thought of it.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

On Narnia and talking trees

Drawing by Aaron Pocock
For quite some time now, I've been reading C. S. Lewis's Narnia books aloud to my children before bed – and we've just started on the seventh one, The Last Battle. So here's an email that my wife sent me today:

This morning Jamie came inside crying, looking very scared. He said, "There is a talking tree outside but it couldn't talk!" I asked a few questions, and it turns out the tree near the swing set has a crack which is most definitely a scary mouth, even though it didn't talk. I told him there were only talking trees in the land of Narnia, not in our world. He agreed this was true, but added that all trees have eyes and mouths and noses inside them. Then he changed his mind and said trees are actually made up of green and yellow jelly on the inside. Yummy.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Rapture: news update

Breaking news: Across America yesterday, ferocious packs of sharp-clawed bipedal dinosaurs were seen entering churches, prayer meetings, ladies' baking groups, and other hotbeds of evangelical piety. Many of the country's most outspoken Christian leaders, including Family Radio broadcaster Harold Camping, have been taken by the grisly predators. It is believed that the prehistoric visitors were the result of a small but significant spelling error in the heavenly Diary. According to sources close to heaven's Department of Future Woes, the entry for 21 May reads: "Unleash the raptor on the saints."

The mistake is thought to be the most serious blunder in the heavenly Diary since the mass outbreak of appendicitis in Jerusalem in 1994 – an incident that was later found to be the result of a scribal error in the Diary: "6 September 1994: Now beginneth the Abdomination of Desolation."

Friday 20 May 2011

Tomas Halik in Sydney

I've posted before on Tomáš Halík's remarkable book on atheism, Patience with God. And I'm very happy to say that Halík will be coming to Sydney next month for an evening of theological conversation. In a public interview with ABC's Scott Stephens, Halik will discuss faith, doubt, and atheism in today’s world. There'll also be wine and cheese – so come along and join us! Full details here.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

King James Bible: anniversary site

OK, drop everything and head on over to the ABC's new anniversary site for the King James Bible.

The site will be featuring loads of good stuff in the weeks ahead, all celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Already you can read Diarmaid MacCulloch on politics and the KJV; Tom Wright on Bible translation (including some samples from his own forthcoming translation of the New Testament); Barry Spurr on the Bible and liturgy; Philip Jenkins on the Bible in Luther and Africa; John McClean on the Bible and the word of God; and Laura Knoppers on the Bible and the English revolution.

The site will also feature a growing number of audio readings from the King James. You can hear John Bell's (very lovely) reading from the Song of Solomon; and Tim Costello's (very Australian) reading from Ephesians.

Elsewhere in the ABC, I'd recommend this wonderful audio recording of Robert Alter's lecture on the eloquence of the King James Bible. And – just to mention it one more time – if you haven't read his Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, it's still the best of all the new books I've seen on the King James.

Monday 16 May 2011

On humorous book indexes: or, Oliver Crisp strikes again

Today I received my copy of Oliver Crisp's latest, Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP 2011). For an extremely important piece of analytic theology, I refer you to the index:

And again:

It's good to see that I have established a reputation for excellence in my field...

Anyways, I also wrote a blurb for the back cover: "Oliver Crisp argues here for the ongoing vitality of several diverse Reformed traditions. He is drawn to the curious, untidy edges of the Reformed tradition, to unexplored (or forgotten) tensions and problems which the tradition has produced. In the midst of these tensions, Crisp finds new possibilities for contemporary theology." Kevin Hector also blurbs it as "an eminently clear, insightful book." So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Off the Shelf: three more types of reading

As a sequel to six types of reading, here are another three types. I had also planned to mention Secret Reading, Stolen Reading, Restless Reading, Abortive Reading, Fetishistic Reading, and Travel Reading – but I got frightfully distracted by all the little pressed flowers inside the pages of Dr Johnson. So I might discuss a few more types of reading next time.

Books mentioned in this video:

Once more with Rowan and Lulu

Oh, and speaking of children: my recent post on Rowan Williams' letter to six-year-old Lulu was the most popular post I've ever had at F&T. It was shared over 4,000 times on Facebook, and received loads of extra visitors from StumbleUpon. All in all, the post got about 27,000 hits in the first three days – and it's still making its way around Facebook.

I found this very intriguing: I wonder why Rowan's letter struck such a chord with so many people?

Sunday 8 May 2011

Giggly theology: Owen responds to Off the Shelf

My video on six types of reading has provoked a brilliant and provocative response from one of America's youngest philosophers. Here is Owen, son of R. O. Flyer and grandson of Roger Flyer, subjecting my video to a stringent critical analysis:

I'm especially impressed by the way he bursts into peals of laughter when he hears the name "Chesterton": the word tends to have the same effect on me.

In fact, I once missed out on an important job opportunity simply because the interviewer – the dean of Harvard Divinity School – happened to mention the name of G. K. Chesterton. We sat in the autumnal light of the dean's office, facing one another across a polished mahogany desk beneath the shadow of towering bookshelves and the high baroque majesty of that Ivy League ceiling. "... And that's the real problem with someone like G. K. Chesterton," he said.

I cleared my throat. I shifted in my seat. I felt my nose twitch as I stifled a little giggle. I concentrated all my mental powers on suppressing the shaking that had started somewhere deep in my diaphragm. I wiped a solitary tear from my eye. I breathed.

At last after a few moments I had calmed myself. I coughed politely into my hand, and opened my mouth to make an erudite remark about Catholic thought on distributist economics – when, to my horror, the dean leaned back in his chair, coffee cup in hand, and said the dreadful word again: "Chesterton." All my defences collapsed. It was as though a gigantic hand had seized me by the rib cage and given me a fierce shake. I covered my mouth. I heard a terrific snort. I wiped my eyes and said, "I'm terribly sorry, I do beg your pardon. We were speaking, I believe, of Ches – Ches – Chester –"

And then it happened. The Dean of the Divinity School leapt from his chair as though stung; coffee shot from his cup like a missile and splattered across his lap, across the floor, across the papers on the desk, across my lovingly shined black shoes. For, before I had quite pronounced the name of that immense theological humorist, my lungs seemed to have erupted in a single, tremendous, high-pitched, belching great guffaw, just as if a bewildered donkey had burst into the room. I covered my mouth. I was mortified. I began to apologise, leaning forwards in my seat and scrambling to remove the coffee-sodden papers from the mahogany desk.

Then I heard it again, that terrible sound, that startled guffaw. And before I knew what was happening, I had blurted out the name at last, bellowed it, all in capital letters – "CHESTERTON!" – not so much a name as an air raid siren. And it was only then that I knew it was really too late: I would never get the job, would never hold a position at Harvard Divinity School, would never fulfill my dream of becoming Administrative Assistant to the Dean. For just as Satan fell from heaven, so I had plummeted from my chair on to that luxuriant coffee-stained carpet, and was rolling about the floor in the shrieking grip of a helpless, hilarious, humiliating theological hysteria.

Friday 6 May 2011

Audio lecture: lessons from Augustine's De Trinitate

Over the past several weeks, my class on the trinity has been working through Augustine's De Trinitate – an immense challenge! Today we reached the great finale of Book 15. So I tried to sum up Augustine's theology of the trinity in a final lecture, outlining a series of brief "lessons from Augustine". I had to record the lecture for some of the students, so I thought I'd also post it here. If you're interested, you can listen below – there are six short parts, each about 10 minutes:

Augustine part 1
Augustine part 2
Augustine part 3
Augustine part 4
Augustine part 5
Augustine part 6

Thursday 5 May 2011

Jacob Taubes: apocalyptic time and the retreat from history

At this year's AAR panel on Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology, I'll be giving a paper titled "Jacob Taubes: Apocalyptic Time and the Retreat from History". I wrote a paper last year on Taubes' interpretation of Paul; this one will focus more on his recently translated works, Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture. Here's my rather long and rambling abstract:

In his famous theses on history, Walter Benjamin proposed that only a messianic conception of time can burst apart the claustrophobic historicism of modern thought, with its endless cycle of cause and effect. Jacob Taubes’ work was developed against the same backdrop of modern doctrines of homogeneous time; like Benjamin, Taubes wanted to inject the possibility of freedom into the tragic continuum of history.

Taubes sees Nietzsche and Freud as the two great architects of a modern tradition of ‘tragic humanism’, where human actors are utterly imprisoned by fate. ‘There is no hope for redemption from the powers of necessity.’ Taubes largely accepts this post-Christian tragic vision, especially as a corrective to secularised eschatologies of progress. Yet he also advocates a return to the theological conception of time in Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. If time is endless repetition, then the urgency of political commitment is diffused; we are compelled into a situation of ‘decision’ only where the present stands under the shadow of the end. Politics, Taubes thinks, becomes possible only where time is rushing towards this end, and thus where the present is not trapped in a web of repetition, but is a moment of absolute crisis and ‘distress’.

This accounts for Taubes’ lifelong preoccupation with Gnosticism. For him, Gnosticism is a form of non-revolutionary apocalypticism: its doctrine of time locates us within a moment of urgency and decision, while withholding from us any claim to political power, as though we could bring about the end through our own agency. Early Christian apocalypticism is fertile because it yields up not simply a rival politics, but a rival to politics, ‘a critique of the principle of power itself’.

In Taubes’ thought, therefore, a tragic vision of history is set within a wider apocalyptic context – though not in a way that is directly liberating, or that issues in any specific political involvement. Taubes wants to retain the tragic pessimism of Nietzsche and Freud even while relativising it apocalyptically, just as Benjamin relativises historicism not by arguing for the possibility of revolution but by an immense deferral of historical hope, in which history is broken open by the coming messiah.

In this paper I will explore this unresolved tension – so characteristic of modern Jewish thought – between tragedy and expectation, freedom and fate. I will argue that Taubes’ nostalgia for Gnosticism represents an attempt to relieve this tension; but that Gnosticism, with its retreat into an ‘interior apocalypse’, ultimately fails to break the deadlock of modern historicism. Instead I argue that the realism of early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism – a doctrine not about the interior life, but about history – is the only genuine alternative to the tragic fatalism of modern thought.


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