Monday 28 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on German sentences

I was brought up proper. So I know that, in conversation, you should always interrupt the other person halfway through their sentence. It is how you show you're really interested. Speaking is the most enthusiastic form of listening. If your conversation partner says something you like, something you agree with, something you find exciting or important or objectionable or just mildly fascinating, all at once you must sweep into action with a sentence of your own. And if all goes well, you will never have to finish that sentence, because your conversation partner will reciprocate with another good energetic interruption.

Every conversation is a minefield. The things that interest me lie buried just beneath the surface, waiting to detonate as soon as they are touched. The moment you trigger my interest in what you are saying, you can be sure that your own sentences will be blown to smithereens. And, in turn, if I have said something interesting and worthwhile, I naturally expect my sentences to be left unfinished too. Why finish a sentence – finishing things is such a bore – when there is someone else around to start a new one?

And so the whole conversation is carried not by even turns but by a series of abrupt lurches, collisions, and transitions. If nobody does me the courtesy of interrupting me, my statements tend to trail off inconsequentially: as though, without being interrupted at just the right moment, I lose all interest in my own sentences and cannot be bothered trying to finish them. As far as I am concerned, there is only one rule of conversation: the more violent the interruption, the better. 

Such conversation is less like tennis than like a game of rugby – not an orderly to and fro, but a wild haphazard flinging back and forth, punctuated by an occasional mad dash or brutal tackle or, if the ball is dropped, a quick ungainly struggle of seizing and grabbing, limbs flailing everywhere. That is how I expect any ordinary conversation to unfold.

My grandmother is a great talker. My mother is a great talker. I am a great talker. God willing, my children and my children's children will be great talkers too.

If my wife is angry with me and wants to torment me, she only has to practise what is called 'active listening': a horrible insulting procedure in which the listener politely nods, raises eyebrows, makes small encouraging indistinct sounds while you are speaking – instead of the proper thing, which is to contradict, expostulate, ridicule, vociferate, interject. Even when I am giving a lecture to my students, I feel restless and deflated if ever fifteen minutes passes without an interjection. It is a sign that I have failed to engage anybody; if they were really interested in what I had to say, they would all be talking right over the top of me. Polite, silent, attentive, 'active' listening is intolerable: it depresses me the way some people are depressed by cursing and shouting and thumping on tables. Hyperactive listening is the only kind I like.

Which brings me to that difficult and delicate subject: the German sentence. For all its elegant clockwork precision, for all its gothic poetical homeliness, the grave disadvantage of the German language is that it cannot be interrupted. For if you interrupt a German sentence halfway through, you might never get to learn what the verb was – whether she agrees to marry you or doesn't; whether their house was destroyed by fire or was saved; whether the person who invited you to dinner is horrified by cannibalism or is an eager practitioner. With the verb coming at the end of the sentence, and with the ever-present possibility that even the most vehemently opinionated sentence might end with that astounding little word nicht, interruption is, for all practical purposes, impossible. There is nothing else for it. You are in for the long haul. You will have to speak in entire sentences, and, what's worse, listen to them too.

Presumably that is where the impressive seriousness of German scholarly discourse comes from: from the habit of listening to a person all the way to the end of the sentence. Academic conferences in English know no such foreign niceties. For us, a gathering of scholars is judged not by who can speak and listen the best, but by who can provide the best and most brilliant interruptions. 'I have heard your subject, I have heard your verb, now let me tell you, sir, what I think!' This is excellent, and it is why our conferences are, as a rule, much more entertaining than the ones in Germany.

You can see the whole difference between these two languages if you walk into a Berlin bar around midnight. In any respectable English pub at that hour, everyone is talking, all together, all at the same time, all constantly and without ceasing. It is not so much a con-versation as a pan-versation. But at this cosy Berlin bar, you find people gathered respectfully in little huddles, speaking and listening in earnest, one voice at a time, everyone taking turns as if the whole thing were supervised by an invisible referee.

I will grant that the Germans invented quantum physics and psychology and moveable type and computers. Fair enough. I will grant that German is the language of science, of philosophy, of theology, of carefully crafted intellectual exchange. Like Latin, it is a language ideally suited to the university. But English – English! – is without rival as the world's great language of magnanimous interruption. A Christian woman I met in Berlin told me she likes to read theology in German, but to worship in English.

English is the language of dialogue – that haphazard rambunctious teemingly unpredictable grand good stuff of human speech. It is the language of Shakespeare and Dr Johnson, of Hollywood and Huck Finn, of Jerry Seinfeld and Jane Austen, of Facebook and Faulkner and Fawlty Towers and the glorious tumultuous clamour of the local pub.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Berlin notebook: in the café

When I arrive in a city for the first time, my most urgent priority is to find a place to drink coffee in the morning. As a general thing I find morning to be a very unsatisfactory business, an unwelcome accident that brings the calm oblivion of sleep and dreams all screeching to an insulting sudden halt. There are people who talk of climbing out of bed in the morning, or even of quaintly hopping up, but I have never understood these innocuous playground metaphors. I am wrenched out of bed, otherwise I would lie there all day. Amid the violent assault of morning, amid this cruel inhospitable turmoil that is called Waking Up, I have a terrible need for something calm, stable, friendly, and predictable. And so the morning coffee is my anchor. Without a good consoling place to drink some coffee and scribble in my notebook in the morning hours I am all adrift, just as some people come unmoored if you take away the television or the daily crossword puzzle or the telephone call from Mother.

So when we got to Berlin and moved into our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, I quickly located the coffee shops in the surrounding streets. At first I went to a place called Café CK on Marienburger Strasse. Now by any ordinary standards, this is an excellent place to take your morning coffee. The baristas are friendly and attractive, the coffee is good, the big blue sofas are cosy and anonymous, the walls are adorned with paintings, the music is smooth, a little bluesy, never too loud or too distracting. Everything is in order, as the Germans like to say. But after my fourth consecutive morning at Café CK, I began to feel vaguely troubled and uneasy. Something about the place wasn't right, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. 

On the fifth day I ordered coffee and sat down and looked around me – and that was when it struck me. The place was too clean. The sofas were all as good as new. The floor was polished. The walls looked newly painted. The espresso machine had been lovingly shined and polished like a boy's first car. Even the light fittings all matched; not one was cracked or broken. Everything was, in a word, perfect.

I left without finishing my drink and went out into the street. On the corner a boy was standing on a cardboard box and playing an accordion. I tossed a coin into the hat and crossed the road. I walked to Café Slörm on Danziger Strasse, where the roughly fitted floorboards creak and all the furniture is worn, faded, decrepit, forty years old and falling slowly to pieces. The front door is plastered with stickers that are peeling away to reveal the scrawled graffiti underneath. The coffee tables are rough wooden crates turned upside down with bits of rusted nails jutting from the corners. There are little homemade shelves with flowers arranged in beer bottles beside mismatched lamps in tattered yellow lampshades. The walls are crumbling away to reveal the red bricks underneath; everywhere there are signs of repair, patches of repainting, nails hammered in and pulled out again. Here and there one sees furtive ironic outbursts of graffiti. Against the big front window are some orange vinyl barstools; you can sit there only if you don't mind resting your feet on the cast iron radiator. Or you can sit facing the bar on a row of vintage folding cinema seats; they look extremely chic and extremely uncomfortable. 

Out behind the bar there is a second room: you can see it from here, since some practical-minded person has made a window by smashing a rough hole through the dividing wall. In one corner the floor is raised on a carpeted platform, supporting a green sofa and a steel table that looks as if it was once a filing cabinet. Above the sofa, stuck to the wall with tape, a series of nude sketches done in charcoal. Big flat cushions and worn velvet cushions and books and magazines scattered on the floor. A table in the far corner appears to be a sort of workbench; someone has taken apart one of the wooden crates and stretched chicken wire around the sides. Perhaps they will use it for mice, or small rabbits. Perhaps guinea pigs. Or perhaps it is merely art. In another corner a wooden chair is painted all over with whimsical cartoon pictures: a whale sipping Coca-Cola through a straw; vines and flowers sprouting from the wood; an enormous cat with enormous cat eyes. A few more chairs sprawl idly around a three-legged table. In the very back there is a high bird cage, the home of two South American parrots named Paula and Leo. A chalkboard on the wall asks you not to feed the birds. Leo flaps his wings and squawks; the floorboards shudder with punk music; everything is a little too loud and a little too severe.

I sit here and drink my coffee, happy at last, and I have never gone back to that other place with its matching decor and comfortable chairs and shiny bright espresso machine.

The Berlin aesthetic: it had got to me. And as long as I was in that city I could abide nothing that was clean, or new, or flawless, nothing that had not already been repaired and ruined two or three times, nothing that was more than barely serviceable, already (and again) on the brink of decay. 

And so at Café Slörm I drink my coffee from a cracked bone china cup while a mangy dog comes over and sniffs around my feet, and the barista sits outside smoking a cigarette on the broken concrete steps. A pretty girl rides by on an old repainted bicycle made of spare parts. The handlebars are very high and wide. I thumb through one of the books on the overturned crate beside me. It is a scholarly monograph, lavishly illustrated, a feminist interpretation of pornographic photography in 1920s Berlin. Some of the pictures are very good. 

The music gets louder; it pounds in your head like a hangover. The coffee tastes a little burnt. The yellow armchair is a little too low, and all the vinyl is peeling off the sides. You have to adjust your weight carefully if you don't want to feel the broken springs digging into your back. Like any self-respecting Berlin café, the total effect of the place is to make you feel that you are in someone else's living room – someone who might have, to be sure, some vaguely sinister intentions, but who is nevertheless quite sociable and hospitable on the whole.

I get another coffee. I kick my shoes off and put my feet up on the chair beside me. I scratch a few lines in my notebook and read the chapter about Anita Berber. I study the photographs and conclude that she was rather beautiful, in that vacant pitiless nightmarish sort of way. The sun falls through the window across the floorboards. I close my eyes to the sun and the music and the sounds of making coffee. It is good to be here. Yes, there is a certain tattered homeliness about it all, and everything is all right now, here in the unassuming dilapidated comfort of morning in a Berlin café.

Friday 18 May 2012

Sarah Coakley: 2012 Gifford Lectures online

Sarah Coakley recently presented the 2012 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen, and they are now available online (h/t Kevin). Coakley's lectures are titled Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation, and God. You can get the text and handouts for all six lectures here; and the first four are also available as video:

1. Stories of Evolution, Stories of Sacrifice
2. Cooperation, alias Altruism: Game Theory and Evolution Reconsidered
3. Ethics, Cooperation and Human Motivation: Assessing the Project of Evolutionary Ethics
4. Ethics, Cooperation and the Gender Wars: Prospects for a New Asceticism
5. Teleology Reviewed: A New Ethico-Teleological Argument for God's Existence
6. Reconceiving Natural Theology: Meaning, Sacrifice and God

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on the Berlin aesthetic

Crossing Eberswalder Straße, I saw an American tourist looking around, perplexed, clutching his camera as he surveyed the street in search of something that might be worth photographing. The woman beside him said cooly, 'I mean, they have buildings here with all the wires hanging out.' 

In other European cities the past is always visible. You visit Rome or Prague or Constantinople to see what the past looks like. In fact you could visit those cities almost without noticing the existence of the present, since the present is less solid, less tangible than the continuing presence of the past. But in Berlin there is no past; or rather, the past is visible only as ruins and decay. 

The city was reduced to rubble in the Thirty Years' War, and again, three hundred years later, in the Battle of Berlin. 'In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed in a hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing' (Anna Winger, This Must Be the Place).

Berlin is a city founded, time and again, on its own ruins. Urban decay is the Grundprinzip of the city, and the secret to the Berlin aesthetic. In Berlin there is no history, only art. Those bits of the past that remain visible are fragments that have been picked out and arranged for aesthetic and artistic purposes. The city is a gigantic lovely mad assemblage of found objects. 

This explains the importance of photography as an art form in Berlin. Photography eschews the sentimental Christian ideals of narrative, history, truth-telling, tradition, and time. Every photograph is only a fragment, a piece of rubble retrieved from the debris of time. 'Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt' (Susan Sontag).

At a gallery in Kreuzberg, I saw the exhibition of a young Berlin photographer. He had photographed sculptures made of urban debris – old brooms, crumpled newspapers, plastic bags, advertising signs, cardboard boxes, broken electrical goods. The objects had been assembled in front of walls and buildings; the sculptures look like random piles of rubbish, but the shadows cast on the walls resemble classical figures from Christian art. The distinct shadowy figures of Christ, St Nicholas, St Sebastian. In this series of shadow photographs – obviously inspired by Plato's theory of forms – one sees the strange distinctive contours of the Berlin metaphysic. Human culture and religion and tradition are shadows on the wall, the beautiful insubstantial images cast by objects more solid, permanent, and original. Except that here the eternal Platonic forms have been replaced by the most transitory, pointless thing in the world: a heap of urban debris.

The Christian myth of primordial harmony is the organising theological principle of most European cities. (That is what separates European cities so markedly from the colourful polytheism of urban India, and from the steel-and-glass Pelagianism of the cities of America.) But in Berlin, the Christian creation-story has given way to a mythology of primordial originary decay: 'In the beginning was the rubble…'

The Roman might well feel that she is living in an eternal city; but the Berliner dwells in the ruins of time. And the ruins of time are beautiful. That is the Berlin aesthetic.

Friday 11 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on the existence of Germany

I was well into my twenties before I ever believed in the existence of Europe. Even then I believed only in France. (I also cherished a certain guarded agnosticism about Switzerland; I had been there once, but too briefly to determine if it was real.) It was not till years later that I became firmly persuaded of the existence of Germany.

If this seems surprising, it will be enough to remind you that I come from a remote primordial island-continent known as Australia. Now Australia has many virtues, as everybody knows; but it is a long way from anywhere else, and it is very hard to believe in other places when they are so far away. 

My country's immigration policy is one of the natural extensions of this principle. Our attitude towards our own indigenous population is another. If there were once only indigenous inhabitants in Australia, it suggests that once we did not belong here; but we could not have come from any other place, since Australia is – we feel it deep in our bones – the only place. So the existence of indigenous peoples is an unfathomable abyss. It strikes us as an alarming proof of our own nonbeing, and therefore as something that is best simply ignored.

The same conviction also explains what is called the 'cultural cringe' – one of the most peculiar features of the physiognomy of Australian culture. There are countries in which artistic, literary, and intellectual achievements are paraded as marks of national superiority: think of the way Americans will talk about Mark Twain, or Germans about Goethe. But in Australia we apologise for our cultural achievements. The cultural cringe is the belief that nothing of value can come from a place like Australia; that anything of real worth must be created someplace else, or at least receive the imprimatur of other places. So Australians will be embarrassed of a homegrown novelist: but if she happens to win a British literary award, we will praise her and love her and perhaps even buy her books. 

The cultural cringe comes about when Australians discover, usually quite late in life, that other places exist – and we never really recover from the shock of it. The shock produces an inverted idealism: instead of believing that my country is the only one, I now understand that it is, after all, a disappointing mirage. Only the other places are real.

Australia thus unites two antithetical (but morally identical) ways of relating to outsiders: either we ridicule foreigners for their funny looks and funny accents, or we abase ourselves before the foreigner – so fashionable! so sophisticated! – and lament that we were ever born in a drab uncultivated penal colony at the bottom of the world.

Even when I had been trying for years, with discouraging results, to learn the German language, I still secretly thought of Germany as a country so far away that it does not exist; and of the German language not as an ordinary means of social exchange between ordinary human beings, but as a sort of magic, something that people like Hegel and Heidegger use for conjuring. I learned German grammar the way seminarians learn their Greek: as if memorising runes. I quoted German the way seminarians invoke The Original Greek in their sermons: as if uttering the syllables of an incantation, something that transcends the limitations of ordinary speech. 

But there came a day in my life when I had to admit to myself that Germany exists, and that the German language is really, after all, only – a language. That was a hard day and a hard lesson. For everything in Australia, the whole moral fabric of my childhood world, was premised on the conviction that Australia is the only place, and that any place you cannot reach by the Pacific Highway – radio blaring, elbow out the window, cane fields rushing by – is, strictly speaking, no place at all. 

Nowadays though, I like my country all the better for the fact that it is not the only one. I'm glad there is a variety of places in the world; I'm glad there is even, somewhere, a segregated location for all the New Zealanders to inhabit. But in Berlin whenever I meet a person who has never been to Australia, I immediately adopt the persona that I have learned so well over so many years (and that makes Australian expats such powerful ambassadors of the Australian tourism industry). 'What?' I cry in shock, as though I had just met a fellow who had spent his whole life underground. 'Never been to Australia? Never even visited? What the devil have you been doing all these years? Sit down, sit down – two beers, bartender, quickly! – and let me tell you a few things about a magnificent great island at the bottom of the world…'

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Psalms for all seasons: a contemporary psalter

At the opening worship service of the Romans conference, it was a joy to use the wonderful new psalter, Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Brazos Press 2012). It has multiple versions of each of the 150 psalms (sometimes as many as ten versions of a single psalm), with musical styles ranging from chant and classical hymnody to African American spirituals and contemporary urban music. There are also spoken word and responsorial settings for each psalm. In our service, there was a psalm reading with part of a Wesleyan hymn for the response – it was very well done, and I've been singing it in my head all week. The book also includes brief theological-practical notes on how each psalm can be used in Christian worship.

I sometimes worry that our hymnbooks – where you have a more or less arbitrary selection of songs, arranged by various doctrinal and liturgical themes – create the impression that worship is a matter of human choice. You choose your Sunday hymns as you might choose a dessert from the menu at a restaurant; and you choose them on the basis of thematic relevance (this week, let's sing about love; this week, let's sing about forgiveness), so that entire dimensions of human experience might never once enter into the singing of a congregation.

But with psalmody as an overarching structure, the congregation is invited to share in experiences that might seem quite remote from their own everyday concerns. That is why we find some of the psalms so offensive: we simply cannot conceive of such experiences, even though they are – manifestly – genuine human possibilities. Instead of criticising such psalms, we need to learn how to sing them.

Our own private griefs are, often enough, quite paltry: but we are invited to join in the gigantic earth-shaking laments of the psalms. Our own criteria for happiness are selfish and small: but we are allowed to share in the magnificent heaven-rending joys of the psalmist. Our own love for God is so feeble that we might forget all about God for days at a time: but our hearts are torn wide open as we join our voices to the enormous lovesick longing of the psalmist's praise. We are safe, affluent, protected, untroubled by enemies or oppression: but we learn to join our voices to the psalmist's indignant cries for the catastrophic appearance of justice on the earth.

If your congregation sings only Hillsong choruses, then their emotional repertoire will be limited to about two different feelings (God-you-make-me-happy, and God-I'm-infatuated-with-you) – considerably less even than the emotional range of a normal adult person. It is why entire congregations sometimes seem strangely adolescent, or even infantile: they lack a proper emotional range, as well as a suitable adult vocabulary. But in the psalter one finds the entire range of human emotion and experience – a range that is vastly wider than the emotional capacity of any single human life.

Just to stick with Hillsong as an example: for a congregation to go from singing Hillsong to singing the psalter would be like seeing Shakespeare's plays after you've only ever watched sitcoms – it would be a shock to discover that human beings can be so large, and that they come in so many different varieties. Nobody has ever felt the way Hamlet feels, or felt so much: that's exactly what makes Hamlet important.

To enter into the singing of the psalms is to participate in a pattern of worship that transcends any private experience. As though worship were really worship, not just the expression of private thoughts and feelings. As though the voice that really sings in the psalms were a universal voice, the voice of fallen and redeemed humanity gathered together in one lump – which is to say, Christ's voice.

When the church's singing is structured around Israel's psalms, there is a constant reminder that worship is not primarily a matter of personal choice; that the experience of worship is not primarily my own private experience; that the voice in worship is not even primarily my voice, but the voice of Israel, the voice of Christ, the voice of Christ's people gathered across time and space, learning together how to transmute all the varied raw materials of human experience into the praise of God through the alchemy of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Princeton Romans conference: audio and video

Last week's Princeton conference on Romans 5-8 was terrific. The whole conference had an ethos of serious exegetical, theological, and pastoral reflection on Romans, and there was a remarkable degree of resonance between the various papers, thanks to the careful and ingenious (though self-effacing) orchestrations of Beverly Gaventa, whose Christian warmth and love for St Paul were the real animating pneuma of the whole event.

Happily, all the plenary papers are available in audio and video. Though the whole conference was excellent, if I was to pick one highlight it would have to be John Barclay's paper on Paul's theology of 'the Christ-gift'. (My own paper was on the Christ-Adam typology in Augustine's Confessions – when I revise it for publication, I'm thinking of calling it "A Tale of Two Gardens: Augustine's Confessions as a Narrative Commentary on Romans".)

If you don't do anything else, you really ought to watch the opening sermon by Luke Powery – the guy can really preach! When you hear good preaching like that, the gospel dawns on you as though for the first time. Listening to Luke Powery, I was stunned by the realisation that God loves me – as though I'd never heard of such a thing before!

Speaking of preachers, another highlight for me personally was getting to know the American preacher Fleming Rutledge – a grand and good human being. She has a new collection of sermons on the Old Testament, which I'm eager to read: And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2011). She also has a lot of sermons online.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Dooby dooby doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

America: how can such a “Christian” nation be so entirely lacking in grace?  A political elite that, in its cult of human sacrifice, is an Aztecan priesthood in suits.  A popular culture that valorises vulgarity, braggadocio, and humiliation.  A fuck-you society whose iconic edifice is the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  Blackguards are role models, Mammon chairs the school board, pedagogy is a lost and hungry soul.  Loving your mother though she’s a whore is one thing, but when she’s Lamia devouring your siblings?

Of course preachers will be hypocrites; hypocrisy is intrinsic to their vocation.  They preach with double-vision: they see their congregation, but first they see themselves – and tremble.

Prayer before the “message”:  “May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts – check that: perish the ‘thoughts’ – may my words be entertaining, needs-meeting, biblically cut-and-paste, and go well with my shirt.  Patriotic would be good too.  And lucrative, please.  Amen.”

 “I hate the sin, but I love the sinner,” conservatives will say when talking about gay people.  But do they have any gay friends?  I think what is usually meant is “I love gaykind, not gay people.”

Should we anticipate the last trumpet with terror?  It all depends on whether the soloist is a marine blowing “Commence Firing” or a Miles playing “So What”.

In a dream I asked Jesus, “Will anyone go to hell?”  And the Lord replied, “Over my dead body.”

I’m a universalist but, as a thought experiment, I can just about imagine a populated hell – with those, like Moses and Paul, who could wish themselves accursed in order to secure the salvation of others.  In other words, a hell full of lovers, not sinners.  But then the one thing hell cannot abide is love; indeed, an invasion of love would mean hell’s destruction.  Hence, the thought experiment collapses into a reductio ad absurdum.  Hell remains an empty set.

I see that Rob Bell’s Love Wins is now out in paperback.  Bell’s opponents are delighted: it burns even better than the hardback.  And speaking of Bell: Okay, Love Wins is a flawed book, but remembering its audience covers a multitude of its sins – people who think Paul wrote, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is hell.” 

What will the people in hell be like? Quite unlike the people who think they know the answer to the question.

A “personal relationship with Jesus” – what’s that all about?  If it’s equivalent to “faith in Jesus Christ”, fine. But it’s not, is it? It’s a shibboleth that inflates to an unmediated experience of walking and talking with an invisible person, of spending quality time together, and if it doesn’t work out, well, “Down, dooby do, down down”. In fact, with Luther and Barth, having a “personal relationship with Jesus” could be said to be the opposite of faith, a theologia gloriae, faith being unanchorable in psychology, not a feeling but a self-negation, sub specie crucis. The phrase itself is hardly biblical; indeed it is quite zeitgeisty, religious coinage in our being-in-a-relationship economy. In fact, talking with people about their “personal relationship with Jesus”, I invariably conclude that they are in the realm of projection and fantasy. There. I guess that makes me a sad, if not bad, Christian.  

Responses on being given the eucharistic bread with the words “The body of Christ”:
Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist: “Amen.”
Congregationalist, Baptist: “Thank you.”
Catholic: “Duh!”

When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, a certain kind of American evangelical theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon of the mental and spiritual life of our time.  For nowhere save in this American evangelical temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors – of philosophic thinness, critical perversity, historical preposterousness, and religious fetishism – without which no bonkers theology is possible.  And the greatest achievement of this American evangelical theology is the Clouseauean investigation of the life of Adam.
– Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Adam 

“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  What was John Wesley thinking when he cited such a pharisaical canard?  Maybe of his mum Susanna, telling him to go wash his hands before supper?  Still, just to be on the safe side, I’ve added exfoliating gloves and a body polisher to my daily technology of prayer.

Another problem with WWJD ethics: the question induces us to speculate rather than to attend.  Or you could say the tense is wrong: the question is not “What would Jesus do?” but “What is Jesus doing?”

Advocates of Just War theory think of it as the middle way between the two extremes of warmongering and pacifism.  Yeah, like 2+2=5 is the middle way between 2+2=6 and 2+2=4.

Ideology: If the facts don’t fit, fuck ‘em. The patron saint of ideology is Procrustes.

Cinema’s top 5 quotations relocated in the New Testament:
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Mark 7:27).
“Hasta la vista, baby” (Acts 5:3-4).
“In a galaxy far, far away” (John 1:1).
“Do you feel lucky, punk” (Matthew 27:11b).
“Here’s looking at you, kid” (Luke 1:28).

That a biblical imaginary has informed and shaped the minds of our greatest novelists and poets is evident in the fact that theirs are narratives and images of sin, failure, pain and sorrow – and of hope only against hope.

In her recent When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson shows herself, characteristically, to be an acute yet most gracious critic – except when it comes to John Spong. With Spong, Robinson gets luminously sarky. What about? Not so much Spong’s literalist liberalism as his supercilious supersessionism, not so much his intellectual crudity as his moral discourtesy.

Marilynne Robinson is very much like Karl Barth – not a liberal humanist Calvinist but a Calvinist liberal humanist. 

Yes, I think I’m in love with Marilynne Robinson. It’s platonic, of course.  The adultery is purely intellectual.  Still, I’d rather you not tell my wife.

Good critics, unlike good writers, cannot make things, but they can make things better.

Baseball writer Tim Brown began an article dismissing public outrage over Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who, in a Times magazine interview, had expressed “respect” for Fidel Castro, by asking, “What, you thought you were getting Henry Kissinger?” No, Tim, a dictator is one thing, a war criminal quite another.

From the crowd, George Carey shouts, “Hit a home run!”  From the dugout, Rowan Williams signals for a bunt.  The strikeouts mount; the church has forgotten how to lay down a sacrifice.

I don’t have a guardian angel, I’ve got a guardian principality.  You guessed it – baseball.


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