Thursday 26 April 2012

Berlin notebook: on bicycles

Right now I'm in Berlin for a few months, so I'll be posting a series of notes about the city.

It has been said that great books are the ones that have to teach us how to read them. It is the same with cities. London cannot teach you how to experience New York, any more than Dickens can teach you how to read Dostoevsky. And when you are in Berlin, the correct way to experience the place is by bicycle.

Now there are people – you will have heard of them, I'm sure – who believe that riding a bicycle is a 'sport', a way to keep 'in shape', something that is merely 'good for you'. Nothing is more morally or aesthetically objectionable than such a cyclist, zipping through the traffic lights in his skin-tight lycra suit and his shiny torpedo helmet, austerely sipping water from an aerodynamic flask strapped to his shoulder.

Who is this fellow? What is he about? He is performing that peculiar Calvinistic ritual that is known as Exercise. On the surface he might appear gregarious enough, but in truth he is a mean unsympathetic creature, this secular ascetic with his sculpted buttocks and his strap-on water bottle. He pursues cycling for his own selfish ends, and therefore cannot enjoy it. To him, it is all the same whether the bicycle actually goes anywhere or whether it is fastened to the floor of a gymnasium, a mere simulation, one of those monotonous unmoving Exercise Bikes that are exactly like a real bicycle in every respect except that they have no wheels and cannot propel you along the street.

There are some things that are corrupted by proficiency. The expert lover, the slick preacher, the professional childcare provider – these are not honest things, because good honest preaching and childrearing and lovemaking require some element of awkwardness and ineptitude and surprise, something tenderly human that resists the cold logic of technical mastery. Just so the cyclist: the fast expert sporty cyclist is an ungodly man, you can count on it. He speaks harshly to his children and spends hours grooming his fingernails and has always felt, deep down, that his father didn't love him. He uses the bicycle the way an expert lover uses a woman, his mind absorbed by all the correct techniques for stimulating pleasure, working at her body as cooly and clinically as a pornographer. Such a lover goes nowhere with his beloved, just as the Exercise Cyclist goes nowhere on his bicycle but stays imprisoned in his own immaculate body even as he whizzes through the city looking straight ahead with a steely gaze through four-hundred-dollar wrap-around pink sunglasses. 

Expert cycling, therefore, I abhor. Expert cycling belongs in no proper self-respecting city. But the bicycle as a vehicle – the bicycle not as an instrument of self-improvement but as a machine of transportation – the bicycle as a strictly utilitarian way of getting about town – now that is a noble and excellent thing, beautiful and true and good in its wobbly ungainly rattling clattering swiftness, all legs and arms and wheels and whirling gears.

What could be nobler than a bicycle? For in the bicycle, you take the most marvellous, ancient, portentous triumph of human invention and ingenuity – the wheel! – and append it to the human anatomy so simply, so naturally, that you would think the human body had been designed for nothing else than wobbling about town on a pair of wheels. Perhaps a million years from now the human species will be born with wheels instead of legs; it would be an improvement. But for now, this spoked, sproketed, handle-barred, rubber-tyred, pedal-driven apparatus supplies what nature lacks. 

Berlin reveals itself to the cyclist, just as Paris reveals itself to the walker and Los Angeles to the freeway driver and Dublin to the drinker. If you want to know what Berlin is, throw away your guidebook, forget about all those tourist sites, and don't even think about setting foot in one of those brand new bright red sight-seeing buses. If you want to know what Berlin is, all you need is some loose change in your pocket, a scarf around your neck, and a bicycle between your legs.

Monday 16 April 2012


by Kim Fabricius

People will phone me and sometimes begin, “Sorry to disturb you.”  I always answer, “Hey, I’m in the business of being disturbed.”  I’m serious.  Disturbances are the ministerial vocation, the locus of insinuating encounter, the way the good Lord says, “Excuse me …” – and an anticipation of his final interruption.

If life stinks, it’s because human behaviour is almost entirely an involuntary excretion.

Humans, it is said, are the universe becoming self-aware.  Bullshit.  That we are conscious beings is the grandest of illusions spun by the old Conjurer, the basis of his entire Project Pandemonium.  The odd conscious being appears now and then, but we are always quick to kill him.  The devil can’t believe his luck. 

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote: “At death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”  At Christ too.

Today I passed an electricity generator and a pylon surrounded by a metal fence.  On the fence there was a pictogram of a lightning bolt striking a prone man, and a sign that said “Danger of Death”.  The pylon suggested a steeple, the generator an altar, and I thought of the church.  But only for a moment.

Is prayer therapeutic?  Only if it kills the patient.

Of course, it’s okay to pray in a foxhole.  It’s just that if you do not pray in ordinary, prayers in extremis make no sense.  That is why our Lord’s cry of dereliction makes total sense: it comes from someone whose whole life was a prayer.

Few things have taught me more about prayer than standing in a long queue.

If (with Barth) sin known is always sin forgiven, in worship should not the Absolution precede, not follow, the Confession?  Of course I know that this reversal subverts the entire course of liturgical history, but then as Milton said, “Custom without truth is but agedness of error.”  In this case, lex orandi, lex errandi.

Another thing: our personal prayers should begin with forgiveness – but not asking God to forgive me, rather giving voice my forgiveness of others.  As in the Duke Ellington sacred song “Don’t Get Down on Your Knees to Pray until You Have Forgiven Everyone”. 

The more the emails I send to others, the less I seem to correspond with myself.

To articulate what you know with clarity, economy, and elegance is a great gift.  But to articulate what you do not know, if only as a clumsy gesture, is a greater gift still. 

We are told to preach our certainties, not our doubts.  Bad advice.  Because there are false certainties and true doubts.  As for tone, better the stuttering than the stentorian.

I have so much respect and affection for Rowan Williams that I have tried – I really have tried – to agree with the suspension of his own theological “opinions” in his irenic arch-episcopal leadership of the Anglican Church.  But I have to ask: what if Archbishops Chrysostom, Cranmer, and Romero had taken that vocational view?

Rowan Williams will eventually publish a Summa Theologica.  It will be called The Collected Poems.  

Professor Steven Pinker,
that prodigious prestidigitator of a thinker,
wondrously waves a wand of statistics and tables – 
and pulls Peace from a hat piled with Belsens and Babels.

Two sections of the brain of Albert Einstein will be on display at the Welcome Collection, London from March 29th to June 17th.  Professor Richard Tetzel-Dawkins of the British Humanist Association has announced that viewing the relics will grant students the remission of three terms and two final exams from the purgatory known as English university education.  The Association had also considered relieving students of any responsibility to read books, before realising that such an indulgence would be completely superfluous.

“Liquid church”.  Fine.  But bring a straw: it’s a milkshake, not a malt.

I say give Joel Osteen a break.  After all, he’s an Oral Roberts University drop-out.

What will hell be like?  Ask a Quaker at a Saddleback Seeker Service.  Oops – can’t find one?

The problem with WWJD ethics is that you could ask the same question of, say, Gandhi.  Whether Christ is living or dead makes no essential difference to an answer that will be trapped in immanence.

Informed as an English major by F.R. Leavis’ “Great Tradition” – which includes George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James – I’ve only just gotten around to Thomas Hardy (who didn’t make the cut).  I am relieved to discover that I haven’t missed much.  Compared to Middlemarch, Nostromo, and The Portrait of a Lady, Jude the Obscure strikes me as a soap opera.

I had to smile when I learned that this year Opening Day for the Mets falls on Maundy Thursday.  The Passion begins.  Of course you could also think of it as Advent 1: the theme is death, judgement, hell.

Take a close look at the hand in Hans Holbein’s Dead ChristRude Christ?

In July, inshallah, I shall become a grandfather.  I told my daughter, “Wonderful, I can be silly again!”  Katie replied, “Dad, what do you mean again?”

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Audio: G. K. Chesterton on cheese

After dinner tonight I forced some friends to sit and listen while I read them one of my favourite G. K. Chesterton pieces: his impassioned 1910 essay on "Cheese," from the delightful collection, Alarms and Discursions. I made an audio recording of the reading, and have uploaded it here for your edification (about 6 minutes). "Cheese" is Chesterton at his glorious fat catholic best.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Book spine poetry

The Eerdmans blog put me on to this gallery of book spine poems. I've never heard of such a thing before, but I think it's a wonderful idea. Luckily, in my house there are books everywhere: and there is almost no method of organisation. On the same shelf you might find Harry Potter, plus a toddler's picture book, plus a book of prayers and something about vampires and the poems of T. S. Eliot, plus a cookbook and a mildewy edition of Thomas Aquinas and something no longer recognisable after the children have defaced it with crayons and sand and glue. A perfect way to arrange your shelves (I discovered) if you are an aspiring book spine poet! So after rummaging around the house for a while, here are five poems – one of which is really a complete systematic theology:






Saturday 7 April 2012

Politics of the empty tomb

Some excerpts from Christ the Stranger have been posted as an Easter reflection at the ABC site: Rowan Williams and the politics of the empty tomb.

Friday 6 April 2012

Wackos: A Good Friday sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

An Amish boy and his father were visiting a mall for the first time.  They were amazed by everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that would move apart and then back together again.  The boy, Eli, asked his father, Amos, “What be this, father?”  The father replied, “Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life.  I don’t know what it is.”

While Eli and Amos were watching, wide-eyed, a homely, bent old lady with a cane slowly walked up to the moving walls and pressed a button.  The walls opened and the old lady walked between them and into a small room behind them.  The walls closed, and Eli and Amos observed small numbers light up, red, above the walls, one by one. They continued to watch as the numbers then lit up in reverse direction.  Suddenly, the walls opened and out stepped a stunningly beautiful young woman.  Amos turned to Eli.  “Son,” he said, “quick, get your mother.”

The Amish.  What a strange lot of people.  Wackos, really.  You may have seen them portrayed in the 1985 film Witness starring Harrison Ford.  The Amish are a strict Mennonite sect that emigrated to the US in the 18th century, living mainly in Pennsylvania, and still speaking a Swiss German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch.  There are about a quarter of a million of these rustic oddballs.  They all seem to have old biblical names (like Eli and Amos), they make their own clothes, wear plain dress, and live simply, very simply, to the point of refusing to adopt many of the labour-saving conveniences of modern technology.  So they limit the use of electricity, don’t like telephones, and ride around in horse-drawn buggies.  (You’ll see some with stickers on the rear: “I pray for higher gas prices”.)  They run their own one-room schools and discontinue education at the eighth grade so the kids, just turned teens, can go work in the fields.  So they’re a bunch of dumb hicks, really, and because the gene pool is so small, some have inherited illnesses.

But if you really want to see these wackos at work, you’ve got to go back to the autumn of 2006 and the Amish community of Nickel Mines.  On the morning of October 2nd, a milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into the local schoolhouse with a 6mm pistol and, barricading the doors, took the class hostage.  He lined up the girls against the blackboard before allowing some adults with infants and all the boys to leave.  Then, execution-style, he shot ten girls, aged 6 to 14, five of whom died, before killing himself.  The Deputy Coroner, Janice Ballenger, later said, "There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”

So how did the Amish community respond to this massacre?  The Amish take the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, and not just as a set of sublime ideals but as commands of Jesus to be obeyed.  They place the highest value on humility, mercy and purity of heart, and reject all violence and vengeance.  But pacifism and forgiveness have got to have their limits, right?  And surely the line has got to be drawn at murder, and particularly at the murder of children, right?

On the very day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered girls said, “We must not hate this man.”  A father said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before God.”

Well, a couple of old crazy people, no doubt still in shock, even denial.  But wait till the loss, the devastation begin to kick in, right?  The third stage of grief – it’s anger, isn’t it?  There’ll be an explosion of fury, won’t there be, and sooner rather than later in such horrendous circumstances?  And like a rock thrown into a still pool, it’ll stir the water into waves of hatred and hostility and an overwhelming demand for retribution, right?

An Amish neighbour of the Robertses knocked on their door.  They opened it with trepidation.  It was a courtesy visit; the neighbour came in and comforted the killer’s family.  More, he acted mercifully.  It was only the beginning.  Other local Amish folk visited and embraced the family, and not only in its guilt but in its own grief.  For heaven’s sake, thirty of them attended the killer’s funeral.  And Mary Roberts, the killer’s wife, was one of the few outsiders invited to attend the funeral of one of the victims.  And there’s more: these Amish wackos actually set up a charitable fund for the shooter’s family.

Mary Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours, thanking them for their unbelievable grace and kindness: “Your love for our family,” she said, “has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family … and is changing our world.”

Well, it was too much.  The criticisms poured in.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Forgiveness?  And particularly forgiveness when the murderer, dead, could not express remorse, let alone repentance?  The man was evil, evil. Not even a man, really, but a monster.  Nor did the killer’s family ask for forgiveness, let alone beg for it.  No, the Amish community itself, including the families of the murdered children, took the initiative.  But note well: for the Amish, loving the enemy does not deny the reality of evil and wrong-doing, rather it acknowledges the darkness of sin even as it begins to dispel it by lighting a way to a future with a promise of hope.  The community of faith envisioned by the Sermon on the Mount was not a pious utopia but a visible reality, the commands of Jesus enfleshed as habits of the heart.

But hang on.  Get a grip.  The Amish are a weird cult, aren’t they?  As I say, a bunch of wackos.  Look at them with their overalls and pitchforks and funny way of talking and eccentric customs.  They’re from another world, aren’t they? 

Yes, they sure are.  And that’s the point.  They’re from another world.  They see reality altogether differently from their surrounding culture.  And, sure, a lot of the trappings seem bizarre and unnecessary.  But the heart of the matter, the kernel not the husk, the way they act, behave towards one another – and more, towards outsiders, people who dismiss, mock, abuse them – isn’t that the way all Christians are called to live?  Isn’t that the way our personal, social, and political imaginations are supposed to be structured?  Shouldn’t that dissident, nonconformist vision be our defining reality?  

In his last moments of excruciating suffering and torment, not only physical but mental and spiritual, Jesus pleaded for the forgiveness of his killers.  And when he was raised from death by the Father, he didn’t go searching for his murderers, in bloodlust for revenge.  Come to think of it, didn’t he act like one of those wacko Amish?  Act like there is no cause worth killing for, act like everyone is worth dying for?  Act like everyone is a child of God, act like no one is beyond redemption? Act like however far people stray into the abyss, God calls us to seek them out and fetch them home?  That Jesus of Nazareth, yes, what a wacko. 

My friends, Good Friday calls us in the most focused and urgent way of all the days in the church’s calendar to ask the question that lies at the core of Christian faith: Which world is the real world?  The world of Wallmart and Westminster, of wallets and wars, of what we wear and worry about, of how we calculate and control, of payback and perdition?  Or the world we see through the crosshairs of the cross, where self is slain, slayers are forgiven, the excluded are embraced, and peace is not a pipe dream but a way of life, a world where we may hope that all will be saved, even Charles Carl Roberts and that impenitent murderer at Jesus’ side?  Luther said crux probat omnia – the cross probes, plumbs, tests all things.  The cross alone defines what is finally right, true, eternal.  Once again, Good Friday presses us with the overwhelming question: are you willing to take up the cross and count yourself among those the world calls wackos?  Of the crucified Nazarene – are you a follower or a fan?

Thursday 5 April 2012

Rowan Williams and the Easter church

On Radio National this morning, Scott Stephens and I talked about Rowan Williams and the Easter church. You can hear the interview here – it goes for about half and hour.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

James-ism: explaining the trinity

Somehow over dinner my daughters tricked me into trying to explain the doctrine of the trinity. I told it the best I could. One God in three persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each one is the whole God, and God is always all three together. Throwing caution to the wind, I even invented a vestigia trinitatis in Jamie's latest box of three-in-one Lego. The same Lego is a car, a boat, and a plane. One Lego, three vehicles. Except that the Lego can never be all three at once (you have to pull the car apart to build the plane), whereas the three-in-one God can be Father, Son, and Spirit all at the same time.

At last they seemed satisfied with these explanations. Four-year-old Jamie hadn't said very much, but he'd been listening intently to my learned disquisition. Then with his mouth full of food, he said proudly: "Actually, I've seen two of those gods."

"Ah," I reminded him with a professorial wag of my finger, "but don't forget, there's really only one God, isn't there?"

My son looked puzzled. He put down his fork. "But you just said there were five gods."

Sunday 1 April 2012

Palm Sunday: a picture poem

O glad morning,
promised day, the day
you come to us, riding
to the holy city, Israel's king,
glorious through the Golden Gate. 
We cut the branches, and wave
your joy, your welcome as you ride, 
and shout your praises to the hills,
the Lord's messiah, David’s son, 
triumphant king, hosanna! We cast
our coats before you, carpeting your way.
Today if we kept silent even the stones
would shout the benediction of your name.
Come Friday, we will shout again,
and rend your clothes and call you 
king, and cut the thicker branches,
cypress, pine and cedar,
and fasten them 
with nails,
to ashes,
the day.


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