Tuesday 31 January 2012

California notebook

The future
‘As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.’ —Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City, 8.

The slide
‘In Los Angeles, all the loose objects in the country were collected as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn't tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.’ —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day, 12.

The night before the Rose Parade, the Oklahoma preacher makes his way slowly down Colorado street, holding above the crowded sidewalk a big yellow sign about Jesus, the Bible, and the afterlife. Ten paces in front of him, his eleven-year-old daughter keeps the same funereal march, pointing the megaphone straight ahead like a pistol and proclaiming the King James gospel at 120 decibels. I thought: One day she will write a book about all this.

The idea of home
We stayed in that big house on the hill overlooking the sea. Everything was new, clean, polished, straight off the pages of a magazine, migrainously bright. It was not so much a home as the idea of a home, just as Starbucks is the idea of coffee and The Smurfs 3D is the idea of a children’s movie.

I am a cynic, a hater, a vehemently eloquent critic of the Disneyfication of childhood. Anyone who will listen, I tell them what’s wrong with Disney. I tell them: ‘You should not always follow your heart.’ I tell them: ‘The Real You is, at times, an abomination.’ I tell them: ‘Your little girl is not a princess.’ I tell the little girls: ‘Your aim in life is not to marry a prince.’ When we agreed to take our children to Disneyland I made wry remarks from the side of my mouth, I spoke of compromises and the sacrifices we make for our children, I prepared myself for the gruelling spiritual trials of a whole day at Disneyland, though secretly I wondered whether we might persuade our children to leave a little early. Then the day arrived. We walked through the gates and we were in Disneyland. The coloured shops and houses were bathed in a soft nostalgic glow, the streets curled away lazily into the distance, a horse-drawn streetcar pulled up beside us, the music of half-forgotten childhood movies started playing from somewhere beyond the sky. Everything was Sunday and Pollyanna and homemade lemonade and America. I peered carefully at a drifting cloud to check if the sky was real. We stayed for fourteen hours, until my children had to beg me to take them home.

We were eating breakfast and I was telling him about the evils of California's penitentiary system. ‘You know, the percentage of incarcerated citizens in the United States is seven times higher than in Australia. And a seventh of all those American prisoners – mostly African Americans – are here in California. It's because the prison systems here operate just like any other corporate enterprise. The prison guards union is one of the wealthiest and most powerful political forces in California. The Three Strikes legislation, for example – one of the most unjust pieces of legislation in American history – was backed by the prison guards union. For them, it's all about keeping the prisons full, expanding the number of prisons, and expanding the number of people working in prisons. A few years back here in California, over 10 percent of the whole state budget was spent on prisons. Just compare that to schools and universities. Just compare it to rehabilitation programs. I mean, once you’ve been incarcerated in California you’ve got like a 90 percent chance of returning to prison – 90 percent! My God, do you know how much money is at stake in all this? Do you know how many new prisons have been built in California in the last twenty years? The dream of these malignant sonsofbitches is to have half of California behind bars, and the other half gainfully employed as guards in correctional facilities.’ He chewed his food thoughtfully and said, ‘Man, I hear you. It ain’t easy. Wherever I go, them police move me on. I try to sleep behind the dumpster, they move me on. I stand in front of the store with a cup, they tell me they’ll send me back to jail. Man, it hard keeping out of jail in California.’

Los Angeles
He took me hiking in the mountains and in hushed tones told me the names of the birds. When we had reached the edge of a steep ravine and all we could see were the mountains, the sky, the cool stream and the canyon, he stopped and said, ‘There it is. My favourite view of Los Angeles.’

The day I went whale watching at Newport we saw the biggest pod of killer whales that has been sighted in these parts for nearly a decade. There were fifty of them, and they swam alongside us and swam in front of us and glided underneath the boat, their white patches shimmering like immense green lights beneath the water. They were so close and so good and gleaming and so startlingly alive that it took the greatest effort not to throw myself down into the sea as a happy mad grateful gesture.

It was a deflating experience. I had gone into Target on the way home because I needed toothpaste, and I stood at the checkout contemplating the infinite melancholy of big department stores, and then in one of the lines I saw a celebrity, and some of the Target staff left their checkouts to go over and shake his hand and tell him they loved him. I looked down at my tube of toothpaste, averting my eyes, and to tell you the truth I felt very sorry for the poor bastard.

‘I’m going to cycle around Europe,’ he told me as we started on our second pint. ‘I dunno, maybe stay and work there a while. Maybe learn a language. I've always wanted to learn a language.’ He had lived all his life in LA, so I asked him what about Spanish, did he know that LA has more Spanish-speaking people than any other place in the world, after Mexico City? He said, ‘No, I don’t like Spanish, I’ve never liked it. It’s just such a – an ugly language.’ I asked him which languages he liked. ‘You know, maybe French, Italian, maybe something like Polish – hell, I dunno, even German.’

Jamie and I were walking down the street and as usual Jamie was carefully stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk. When an old homeless guy shuffled past in his broken shoes, Jamie told him matter-of-factly, ‘If you step on the cracks you’ll die.’ Without stopping the man nodded his profound grizzled head and said, ‘Yeah brother, they hard rules. One false step and it’s all over. That's hard rules right there, brother.’

The mysticism of the freeway
‘The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over…. “As you acquire the special skills involved,” Reyner Banham observed in an extraordinary chapter about the freeways in his 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “the freeways become a special way of being alive…. The extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical”.’ —Joan Didion, The White Album, 83.

Venice Beach
Along the brokenhearted strip of break dancers, jugglers, bad musicians and graffitied trees and sinister-looking fortune tellers, amid the slouched huddles of storefronts peddling pipes and hotdogs and t-shirts and tattoos, the medical marijuana clinics are newly painted, clean, seedy, legitimate. A guy in dark shades and a bright green lab coat takes a drag on his reefer and calls out, ‘Step inside, ladies and gentlemen, right this way, the doctor is in. Headache, back pain, insomnia, sadness – it's good for whatever ails you.’ You peer inside doubtfully, and decide you’d rather take your chances with the guy in gangsta clothes and prison tattoos down on the corner.

I told him I was from Australia. ‘Australia? For real? It must be nice, all them animals. But you got no sidewalks in Australia – it’s an amazing place.’

When I told her I wanted to go to Mexico she said, ‘Mexico? Mexico? What you wanna go there for? Mexico – oh God, it’s so gross. You been to Sacramento? You been to Vegas?’

Dentist #1
He stumbled into the room, leaning heavily against the wall. His speech was slurred and he had to strain to keep his eyes open when I explained the details of my daughter’s accident. She had been running outside with her friends at a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Beach. There was a steel handrail. She didn’t see it and she ran right into it. One tooth out. Both front teeth broken in half. He made me repeat the part about the Mexican restaurant. I explained that we had wanted fish tacos. He slouched out of the room, bumping into the door frame and murmuring to himself as he shuffled off down the hall. It was nine in the morning, and he was either extremely drunk or (as I surmised) had been helping himself to the opiates from the medicine cabinet. Their website boasts that they have their own qualified anesthesiologist and can provide sedation upon request. When I walked out and told the receptionist that we would not be coming back because the doctor was not sober, she feigned mild surprise – ‘Really? Not sober?’ – and then whispered confidentially, ‘You could try coming back tomorrow.’ My daughter told me afterwards that she loves all dentists, but was frightened of that one.

Dentist #2
Our next dentist was a pretty Iranian woman who pursed her lips sympathetically when my daughter explained how she had broken her teeth. We read the comic books and children’s magazines in the waiting room and we got her teeth repaired. My daughter never groaned or flinched once until it was all over and the dentist gave her a mirror so she could admire her perfect new teeth. Only then did she burst into tears, because she had grown used to those ghastly sharp cracked tomboy fangs, and she resented her smooth new unblemished American teeth.

In Balboa Park in San Diego we saw a man with no arms singing country songs and playing guitar with his toes. Jamie whispered, ‘Does that man got no arms?’ I nodded. He said, ‘Is that man really playing with his feet?’ I nodded. Then he said doubtfully, ‘Is that man real?’ The boy had been to Disneyland, he had been to Malibu, he had seen the film crews at Santa Monica and Altadena. He knew that in California you can never be quite certain whether or not a thing is really real.

Dentist #3
A few days later I heard her telling one of her friends: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a dentist.’

Friday 27 January 2012

Got to doodle

by Kim Fabricius

If posts are getting longer, that might be because bloggers are spending less time writing them.

I’ve got the attention-span of a mayfly.  That’s why I pray: to upgrade to a gnat.

That’s also why I write.  If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t notice a damn thing.

On Moby-Dick: Does Moby-Dick symbolise God, evil, chaos, blind fate? Yes. Here’s how great a book Moby-Dick is: God symbolises the White Whale.

In his memoir Nothing to Be Frightened of, Julian Barnes says, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”  Shoot, I believe in God because I miss him.

It has often been observed that Milton’s God in Paradise Lost is insipid, his Satan grand and dynamic.  And that, of course, is because it’s much harder to draw enthralling virtuous characters than wicked ones.  Compare the main problem that pacifists face: namely, convincing people that nonviolence is more noble and compelling than the inferno of war.

Flannery O’Connor, describing her literary style, famously said that for “the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”  Her mentor was the Creator: hence Moses, Elijah, Jesus and the saints.

Mary Magdalene: Hey, Jesus, what’re you rebelling against?
Jesus: Whadda you got?
(From The Wild One, 1953.)

Hastening and waiting are the two poles of Christian existence.  Waiting prevents hastening from becoming hurrying; hastening prevents waiting from becoming loitering.

For the pastor, preaching is the hastening, praying the waiting.

Any preacher who doesn’t think he’s a fraud is – a fraud.

I like the idea of Liquid Church – as in liquid lunch.  And Messy Church has got to be better than the usual anal retentive one.  But the church patterned on saints I love and admire is Circus Church (William Stringfellow) – a travelling freak show. 

In the Roman Catholic Church, the issue of women priests is gynaecological, in the Orthodox Church pogonological.

Basically, the Church Dogmatics is two things: Barth’s album of love-songs to Jesus, and a long pastoral letter to Christians in via, his Epistle to the Roaming.

The tragedy of much Christian witness is that the accused seem to think they are the Judge.

The demons recognise Christ when they see him.  Which can’t always be said of Christians.

What are the debates of presidential candidates if not demonic forms of glossolalia?

The optimising of the optional is as old as Judges 21:25.  Except that in Israel it was a sign of national chaos, whereas in the US it’s called freedom.

Beware the patriot who doesn’t have a passport.

I once heard someone say that if you want some idea of the reality of systemic racism, consider a woman in a wheel chair on the fourth floor of a hotel who sees a sign by the elevator: “In Case of Fire, Take Stairs”.

What is Facebook but a form of mass electronic cosmetic surgery?

Have you observed that while bad times may drive a person to lose faith, good times rarely move a person to gain it?  And that while undeserved misfortune may drive a person to lose faith, underserved good fortune never seems to have the same effect?  That’s lose-lose, Lord.

How does one prevent oneself from lying to oneself?  Sages say by trying to lie to oneself.  Bachelors all.  More effectively, try lying to your wife.

Tim Tebow claims to be an evangelical, but I reckon he’s half-way to Rome.  After all, the quarterback prays on one knee, and every pass he throws is a Hail Mary.

Poor Tom Eliot clearly didn’t care for baseball, otherwise he would have chosen a different month than April for the first line of The Waste Land.  As his family was originally from the Boston area, surely September.

Templeton funding available

You can now submit online funding inquiries to the Templeton Foundation in the areas of philosophy and theology. Formal submissions will need to be placed between 1 February and 16 April.

I've talked to some people from Templeton, and I understand the scope of their funded projects is becoming broader these days. They seem to be interested in funding more theological projects, and they've been funding lots of stuff relating to analytic theology. They've also announced that philosophical projects in this round of funding won't need to have an explicitly religious focus.

You can see a list of recently funded projects here.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Ninety-minute sermon blues

On Sunday morning we went along to a big African American church here in LA. I always enjoy this kind of worship service – though on this occasion, it turned out to be a whopping three hours of singing, preaching, praising, preaching, foot-stomping, and, yes, more preaching. Afterwards I wrote a blues song about the experience. I'd like to dedicate this one to all you preachers out there...

Ninety-Minute Sermon Blues

[Chords: A7, D7, E7]

Well preacher-man talking
About David and King Saul
But if he don't stop talking soon
Ima crawl on out that door
I'm stuck in my pew
With the ninety-minute sermon blues

At first I was so happy
I shouted out Amen
But that was back before the preacher
Started up again
I'm stuck in my pew
With the ninety-minute sermon blues

Well you took away my sins Lord
And I know that's a fact
But if that preacher don't stop soon
Ima have to take them back
Cause I'm stuck in my pew
With the ninety-minute sermon blues

Well get me some whisky
Lord and get me some gin
Cause the preacher-man's still shouting
And it's nearly half-past ten
Still stuck in my pew
With these ninety-minute sermon blues

[mournful harmonica solo]

Oh sister can you help me
I'm feeling mighty blue
And if you need some loving
Sister, I can help you too
If you're stuck in your pew
With those ninety-minute sermon blues
Baby I'm stuck here too
Ninety-minute sermon blues

Sunday 8 January 2012

Doodlings unrelenting

by Kim Fabricius
A writer must have the hots for words but should never trust them, because they always stray.

Good theology is like fishing on a sunny summer afternoon, when you throw back most of the catch; bad theology is like a feverish hunt for the White Whale.

Arguments for the existence of God are a puzzle to the non-believer, a crossword puzzle to the believer.

Mistakes are part of any good description of God. Only heretical accounts of God are infallible.

What’s the difference between God and idols? Idols get really pissed off when you poke fun at them.

If I could draw like Dürer, Praying Hands would become White Knuckles.

For Advent reading, Rowan Williams commended two books published in 2011. One is Hauerwas’ Learning to Speak Christian. The other is Diary of a Soul by Pennar Davies (who used to teach and minister here in Swansea), which Williams describes as “an extraordinary spiritual testament from one of the greatest Welsh Nonconformist thinkers and writers of the past century”. In the book’s introduction, Williams observes that Davies’ “main purpose, and achievement, was his desire to bare his inner struggles – especially the struggles between flesh and spirit.” Davies writes: “Sin lurks in my heart like dust in a house.” How palely confessional, I thought. I would say that sin floats in my heart like shit in a toilet. Cesspool of a Soul would catch the whiff of my own diary. 

The Alzheimer’s-afflicted remind me of Sisyphus: they spend the day toiling to reconstruct their identity, then sleep, and then, next morning, begin the same labour again. Over, and over, and over, each day more punishing and futile than the day before. Except that Camus could imagine Sisyphus happy. 

If Christianity is unique, it is in declaring not the forgiveness of the sinner but the forgiveness of the righteous. The righteous too must repent – precisely of their rectitude. 

Tertullian said that one Christian is no Christian. So are a thousand. 

“Christian values”: that’s the phrase I would parse if asked to give an excellent example of both bullshit and propaganda. 

Which reminds me of a recent lecture by David Cameron in which the prime minister, oxymoronically describing himself as “a committed – but … vaguely practising” Christian, intimated that Rowan Williams should be doing more to “defend” and “promote” the “values” of the Bible – which may be accurately construed as “he should be doing more in the way of national moral policing and social control”. Of course, it is to be expected that a prime minister will deploy language (as Orwell memorably put it) “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, particularly when he is talking about religion. Alas, how silly of me not to have anticipated that a gaggle of bishops would then proceed to genuflect at such gilded guff. 

The most devastating question that the feeble critiques of the New Atheists implicitly put to the church is: Are we simply getting the cultured despisers we deserve? 

The New Atheists are frauds. In fact, they are true believers. Witness the prodigiously fulsome obituaries for Christopher Hitchens: they are monuments to his apotheosis. 

In personal anguish, the answer to the question “Why me?” is not an explanation but a resurrection – though a hug, a cup of tea, and help with the hoovering will do. 

Have you noticed that for the truly exocentric person (i.e., the saint), there is no “problem of theodicy”? That’s because the faith of the saint is not contingent on contingency; the saint understands contingency itself as a gift. The problem of theodicy is thus best understood as a snag in sanctification. 

I venture to suggest that most local churches are Marcionite. And Marcionite eggshells, indeed broilers, are to be found in both liberal and conservative theology, and in liberation theology too. I’m thinking supersessionism. It’s damn near systemic. 

Theological persuasion is a necessary but not sufficient condition for most Christians who resist the inclusion of LGBT people in the church. Even personal contact may not lead to holistic metanoia. Psychotherapy may be necessary. Even, as a last resort, exorcism. 

“A study by Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny at The Scripps Research Institute (2008) suggested that junk food consumption alters brain activity in a manner similar to addictive drugs like cocaine or heroin” (Wikipedia). Given their reading habits, that explains the mentation of many young evangelicals here in the UK. 

As Pascal said, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly without an iPad.” 

Swearing may be bad for the soul, but it’s great for the body, its very visceralness a virtue in these gnostic times of ours. Besides, Stanley Hauerwas swears. Hauerwas has done for cussing what Barth did for pipe-smoking. 

What’s the difference between the Gods of Calvinism and Arminianism? Here is what they say to those in hell: The Calvinist God says, “Fuck you!” – The Arminian God says, “You’re fucked!” 

What are the cosmetically modified but contemporary gargoyles? “Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.” That’s St. Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the 12th century. 

True story. I once took the funeral of a young lawyer, and the crematorium was packed with colleagues, paralegals, and judges. We came to the climax of the service, where I was supposed to say “Let us stand for the committal.” Instead, the Reverend Plank said, “Let us stand for the acquittal.” Embarrassed? Absolutely. But following on from Romans 8:31ff., a slip of genius, don’t you think?

When I was young, I thought that one day I would grow up. Yeah, and when I was a young minister, I thought that one day I would know what I was doing.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Why pray?

Why pray? Here are ten reasons:

1. Our Father who art in heaven
Because without prayer there is only – myself. Between the heaven of prayer and the hell of the self there is no middle way. The more I try to find myself, the more I am lost. To call on God as Father is to discover myself as someone God calls child.

2. hallowed be thy name
Not because prayer will give me what I want, but because it will knead and pummel my wants, stretching them my whole life long, until at the last hour of my life I have learned to want one thing only, the only thing worth having. And so my whole life becomes a secret sigh, an inarticulate utterance of the hidden Name of God. And so even my death will be my prayer, the sigh by which I give myself up into the presence of the holy Name.

3. thy kingdom come
Because my prayer encompasses not my own life only but the entire world of which I am a part. What defines this world is scarcity, injustice, and oppression – in other words, hunger. To pray is to find in my own hunger an echo of the hunger of the world, in my own small cry an echo of the cry for justice that rises like smoke from the scorched earth.

4. thy will be done
Because prayer is the end of willing, the beginning of wisdom. The life of prayer is a slow dying into the will of God, a slow awakening into the freedom to live.

5. on earth as it is in heaven
Not because prayer is a technique of self-improvement or an instrument of spiritual experience, but because it is beyond all human competency, beyond all language and learning and control. Prayer is the speech of heaven. To pray is to live beyond the narrow walls of the self and beyond whatever I can merely control. As sunflowers open to the morning, so the praying life opens towards heaven, standing up straight into the bright burning presence of the Name.

6. give us this day our daily bread
Because every day, morning and night, I hunger. The stuff of my life is hunger, need, and lack. Technology and affluence blind me to this truth, but one day – a single morning – without food is enough to show me the truth of what I am. I live by lack: God lives by fullness. I am only hunger: God is only food.

7. and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

Because hurt and disappointment and resentment are always knocking at the door of my life. As soon as I drive one away another arrives, eager to come in and set up its home in the little house of my heart. I will die of resentment; I am destroyed by what I am owed. But I learn to forgive when God writes off my debts and makes me free. Now I can live, now I can clear the debts of enemies and friends, and speak the magic word of forgiveness that drives resentments back into the dark.

8. and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
Because this world is only trial. Yet it is God's world, and all the evils that crowd in upon my life can never hide my voice from the listening God.

9. for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever
Because God is glorious. All my life I was asleep within myself, but when I bowed my head to pray I opened my eyes to the glory of God. Glory should be seen. Just as it is right for a mountain to be seen or a piece of music to be heard or the body of a lover to be loved, so it is right to give God thanks and praise, for God is glorious.

10. Amen
Because the life of God is prayer itself. It is deep calling to deep, the endless giving and receiving of unbounded self-divesting self-communicating joy. My prayer is an eavesdropping on the Prayer that is God. God's speech is grace and truth, God's life is love, God's silence is the annunciation of the Name. The word of my life is a modest, small, yet glad and true, Amen.


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