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).

Monday 24 October 2011

Doodlings again...

by Kim Fabricius

A good writer turns the obscure into the conspicuous; she also turns the obvious into the intricate.

The better the poet, the greater the torment over the inexorable near-misses. 

Wittgenstein’s correction of Descartes: Cogito, ergo sumus.

God is the Mystery-without-Secrets.

J.B. Phillips wrote a famous little book called Your God Is Too Small. But isn’t the problem that many people’s God is too big?  

If (with Ben, following Stringfellow and Nouwen), the kingdom of God is like a circus, the kingdom of the world is like a zoo. True, a zoo is not “nature red in tooth and claw”, but that’s only because the animals are either grazing or sleeping. Except for the chimpanzees: they are either grooming or mooning.  Yep, that’s the world alright.

I’ve just finished reading Anthony Le Donne’s sharp, engaging Historical Jesus (2011), which confirms that the Messiah, like Brian, was a very naughty boy, and a great disappointment to his mother. Though from the lad’s point of view, Mary was an over-protective control-freak. Semper Mama?

Creationists do not disbelieve in science. On the contrary, creationists believe only in science – crap science.

The “Zero Intolerance” church is the latest effort in market-ecclesiology of my own United Reformed Church.  Very counter-culturally, there is a catchy sound-bite advertising offensive. Equally anti-zeitgeist, local congregations are offered the choice of opting in or staying out. And training (euphemism for disempowerment) is, of course, de rigueur. The only thing the campaign is missing is a patron saint.  My suggestion would be Pelagius.

Yes, Karl Barth warned of the dangers of what you might call “conjunction-ecclesiology”: e.g., the church and the nation, or the church and the family. Today the menace is “adjective-ecclesiology”.

The United Reformed Church is now receiving applications for the post of Moderator of the Synod of Wales.  Unless all applicants are immediately deemed un-called, and therefore unfit, for this ministry, I’d rather we cast lots.

I have often thought that a fitting soteriological image, a symbol for the work of Christ, is the toilet.  Apart from the handle, which is an Arminian attachment.

I see that in the new English translation of the Mass, the blood of Christ is shed not “for all” but “for many”, with the annotation that not everybody chooses to be saved. As if the reversion to exclusivity isn’t bad enough, it’s compounded by an Arminian gloss. What a muddle. Perhaps the next translation will go Calvinist with “for a few”.

God is on the move. It is called “illegal immigration”.

What should be the next stage in the “occupation” of Wall Street? If precedent is anything to go by, the construction of settlements. And a wall. Oh, and checkpoints for the daily harassment of bankers on the way to work.

Instruction for going to university in contemporary Britain: “Put fee in slut.”

Advice to a young minister: Remember that when you preach, you are speaking to everyone in particular.

True joy grows only in the garden of sorrows.

Have you ever thought that the parable of the Prodigal Son might be an autobiographical story about living post-exilically?

Paul’s list of ecclesial vocations in I Corinthians 12 is not, of course, exhaustive. In the UK, for example, for the church’s common good, there must surely be a charisma for arson.

Paul wrote that he was not “ashamed” of the gospel (Romans 1:16). Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find someone ashamed of anything. Embarrassed perhaps, but not ashamed.

The best reason for balking at the Virginal Conception is the argument from narrative symmetry: a shameful death demands a shameful birth.

Title for sermon on Mark 10:14 in the US: “Pissed Christ”.
Title for sermon on Matthew 11:19 in the UK: “Pissed Christ”.

I’ve just returned from visiting my mum in New York. I watched several television programmes about the search for a worthy presidential candidate for the Republican Party. I think you’re more likely to find a gold nugget in a turd.

My body is finally turning into a temple. But it’s age, not sanctity: I no longer have the energy to be a brothel.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Preaching on every book of the Bible: or, the problem with the lectionary

Speaking of those Bibledex videos: if I ever get the chance to preach in the same place for 66 consecutive weeks, I'd love to do a series of sermons like this – one on every book of the Bible. It would be an exciting, demanding discipline to have to identify one theme for each biblical book – not only its internal theme, but also its location and function in the wider canon – and to proclaim the subject-matter of that book in one simple address. (I'm talking here about a sermon, which by definition can have only one point, one Word – not a lecture, which might have various different points and themes and observations.)

There's a lot to be said for the use of a lectionary cycle. But the lectionary tends to presuppose, rather than to foster, a broad understanding of the biblical story. Lectionaries were designed for use in societies that were already implicitly Christian – societies in which the rhythms of the liturgical year, and the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, could be more or less taken for granted. In the Revised Common Lectionary (which my own church follows), just look at the theological subtlety with which the OT and NT readings are often connected: a subtlety that is quite lost on anybody without a good working knowledge of scripture and liturgical tradition. And preachers only exacerbate the problem when they take these subtle liturgico-theological connections as the theme of their proclamation, instead of preaching from the texts themselves. (Preachers, please note: the content of your proclamation is not the liturgical calendar, but the Word of God!)

For many congregations today, it would be better to interrupt the lectionary cycle so that specific books of the Bible could be expounded in depth. I once attended a church where the minister interrupted the lectionary for some months in order to preach all the way through the Epistle to the Romans. It was a transformative experience. And alongside depth, our congregations need biblical breadth. Imagine preaching for a whole month on the broad theme of "the Prophets": from that time on, all those weird lectionary readings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah would actually start to make sense. (If the lectionary is a sort of doxological hermeneutic, don't forget that the shaping, selection, and arrangement of texts into a scriptural canon is already its own liturgical hermeneutic: with this difference, that the canonical hermeneutic is confessed to be divinely given, so that all subsequent interpretive frameworks are answerable to this "inspired" framework. So the way the Book of Jonah functions in the lectionary is derivative of its function as part of the canonical collection of "the Prophets".)

If you're a congregational minister today, I reckon one of your tasks is to cultivate the sort of catechised community in which the lectionary cycle can be used with profit – in other words, to foster enough biblical literacy for the congregation to be able to participate meaningfully in the church's tradition of doxological reading. 

That's why I'd love to spend 66 weeks preaching on every book of the Bible: not instead of the lectionary, but for the sake of the lectionary's proper and fruitful use.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Bibledex: a video about every book in the Bible

Here's a great resource. Video journalist Brady Haran has collaborated with the theology department at Nottingham University to produce a short video on every book of the Bible. The videos feature various personalities from the Nottingham department – including Anthony Thiselton, John Milbank, Conor Cunningham, Alison Milbank, Philip Goodchild, and Karen Kilby. As well as covering every book of the Bible, there's a series of videos on individual verses and geographical locations.

The same guy has done two other video projects like this: one on sixty physics symbols, and one on the whole periodic table. It's great stuff.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Prayer after a picnic breakfast with my children

Yours are the bright sun and the blue sky to which we turn our faces as we gather on the lawn. Yours is the smell of steaming pancakes and brewed coffee and fresh-mown grass. Yours is the choreography that sets the wasps dancing while the trees and the shrubs applaud.

Felicity has prepared a table for us, and You are the welcome that nearly blinds us as we squint together at the shining plates and glittering knives and forks. You are our fullness as we pile our plates with the pancakes we have made. You are our sweetness as we scoop big handfuls of sliced strawberries from the bowl. You are our overflowing bounty, our More Than Enough, as we squeeze the maple syrup from the bottle, as it oozes and dribbles over everything. You are Anna's generosity when she sees my plate and worries that I will not have enough, when she hands me her own dripping pancake and implores me to receive it. You are the swell of gratitude in Jamie's chest when, overwhelmed by all that breakfast means, he turns and smears my cheek with maple-syrup kisses.

O grain of the earth and fruit of the strawberry bush! O pancake of joy and syrup of thanksgiving! To You we lift our hearts, and our mouths are full of Your goodness. To You we raise our shining forks and smiling sticky faces, for today heaven and earth are dripping with Your glory. Light of our light, festivity of our feasting, joy of our breakfast picnic: the night's long fast is over, and we give You thanks and praise.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

On buying an unwanted book

When I was forced to play team sports as a boy, I would wait in diminishing hope while all the other boys were chosen one by one. In the end there would be two of us left, me and the kid with coke-bottle glasses who couldn't tie his own shoelaces and who was known to burst into tears if he was knocked down or if he lost the ball. For long agonising seconds the two hairy-legged captains would size us up, before, finally, one of them would turn to the other and pronounce the cruel verdict: "You can have them." (I cannot lie: this happened even when my own best friend was one of the team captains.)

Yes, my friends, I know what it is to be unwanted. I suppose that's why Calvinism has always appealed to me, and why I was forever bringing home stray kittens as a boy. It is also why I sympathise with the unwanted book, the book nobody else will buy or read, the book that might have languished in embarrassed silence until the end of the world, and still remained unchosen. It is part of Christian belief in the resurrection to assert that nothing is ultimately unwanted, nothing finally lost or forgotten. When the last trump sounds and the sea gives up its dead, whatever was forgotten will be raised up and kept forever in the presence of him in whom Memory and Love are one.

So sometimes when I'm rummaging in the back corners of a used bookstore, I will choose a book just because it looks lonely, neglected, and forgotten. I find myself treating the book with special respect, handling it gently, patiently studying the printing and binding, admiring the typeface, before finally taking it to a special place – my favourite cafe, or the shade of a big tree – where I can read it slowly and in secret. Like one of those orphaned kittens, I love the book even more on account of its rejection by the world. By reading the unwanted book, I give my silent witness to the coming day when all the books are opened and everything is remembered and whatever was last becomes first.

On Monday I acquired a book in this way and for this purpose, while I was poking around in one of my favourite Sydney bookstores. It is a grubby little pamphlet called Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was published in 1948 in London by the charmingly named publisher, His Majesty's Stationery Office. It is set in a sober yet energetic Roman typeface. It cost me $3.50, though in 1948 it could be purchased directly from H. M. Stationery Office for 2s. 0d. net. The first sentence is so plain and workmanlike as to be almost beautiful: "This book was written at the invitation of the Treasury." It was written to advise civil servants and other government bureaucrats on the use of English in their official documents and correspondence. 

Admittedly, when I Googled the book I soon discovered that it is neither unwanted nor forgotten: in fact it was a huge success, and a greatly expanded version is still in print today. In fact, the whole thing is freely available online. There is even a recent biography of this unassuming civil servant. But you'll appreciate that none of this mitigates my own special reasons for acquiring and reading the lonely little 1948 pamphlet. 

And even if Sir Ernest addresses himself to His Majesty's civil servants, I found his advice very relevant to contemporary scholarly writing. So in the next week or so I'll try to do a series of posts on writing tips, based on Gowers' advice about how to choose the right words and avoid the wrong ones. As someone has said: comrades, if we cannot all be artists and geniuses, let us at least strive to be literate!

Sunday 9 October 2011

Audio lecture: the aesthetics of Christian mission

Last night I had a wonderful time giving a lecture to the Uniting Church's Queensland Synod on "The Aesthetics of Christian Mission". There's an audio recording here (the lecture starts at about 7 minutes – it goes for about 45 minutes, followed by a brief response and some Q&A). The video clip halfway through the lecture is this one:

And here are some suitably deranged snaps from the Synod website:

Friday 7 October 2011

Questioning God: Sydney atheism conference

You can now see the full program for our conference on Questioning God: Faith and Atheism in Australia. There's a great lineup of speakers from different traditions, including David Fergusson, Marion Maddox, Stuart Piggin, Scott Stephens, Mehmet Ozalp, Garry Trompf, Geoff Thompson, and Neil Ormerod; as well as a dinner address by Kristina Keneally (did you know she studied theology before going into politics?).

There's still time to register – hope to see you there!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

James-ism: on God and death

My four-year-old, Jamie, gets very metaphysical around bedtime. After we talked to him about the eternal destiny of the dog and the universe, he launched into an extended monologue on the meaning of death. Recorded verbatim here:

Mum, when we're dead God won't be dead. Because God always be's alive, he never be's dead. When you're dead and I'm dead we'll go somewhere – to heaven. And we'll see God real. And we'll talk to God and we'll see God, real. [Nodding wisely.] I'm glad to hear that. But I'm not glad to hear we're dead. Everybody in the world isn't glad to be dead.

When I'm dead everybody else will be dead. Not baddies – baddies don't be dead.

All the good people in the world will be in heaven with God. And even bad people? God loves bad things because he turns them into good things.

Mum, can I die holding your hand? Pleeeeease?

The saddest thing of being dead is dead.

Monday 3 October 2011

Peter Steele: praying

Another text on prayer. This is "Praying", by the Australian poet-priest Peter Steele – from his collection, White Knight with Beebox (2008):

Sometimes it feels like Jimmy Durante calling
goodnight to Mrs Calabash, whoever
she was or whether. Sometimes it's the tenth
hour in the trans-Pacific plane,
all glamour gone and connections still to make.
and it's been known to turn dirty,
as if a cutter, back from the peat-hag, found
his ass's pannier loaded with nothing.

But whistling in the dark, as the poet said,
is good practice for whistling, so
one goes on doing it and cognate things,
knowing a little and holding out
for a touch of what shows in the eyes of the old
hands at the business, their voices surrendered,
a better than Boeing winging their hopes, the laden
flesh beginning to take fire.


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