Sunday 29 July 2012

Caption contest: Rowan Williams at the Olympic Games

Life is never easy for the Archbishop of Canterbury – as these photos attest. Anyone want to supply the caption?

(Thanks to Buzzfeed for the great pics.) 

Thursday 26 July 2012

Doodlings: more mirth and mischief

by Kim Fabricius

I see the quest of the historical Adam segued into the question of what did Jesus know and how did he know it. The discussion – with comments like “he probably didn’t know the Pythagorean theorem” (better cognitive odds, I reckon, on the “God particle”), and “even with mistakes, he was a good carpenter– raises another question, one that exercised the Schoolmen: Did Jesus laugh?  And answers it too.

Here are another couple of questions. Could Jesus forget things?  Like to water the plants, his girlfriend’s size, or where he left his keys?  And could he anticipate the future – not his parousia, he admitted the unpredictability of that one (though one interlocutor avers that modal logic allows the ignorance to have been temporary), but, say, the roll of the dice (was he barred from Roman casinos?), or tomorrow’s weather (did he know there’d be a sunny day for the picnic of the 5,000, or was it “Red sky at night, Good Shepherd’s delight”?)?  Above all, do you think he saw Apollinarius coming?

One commentator complains, very nicely, that I have an “american-hating, gay-marriage obsessed, cussing persona”. Though it might speak to his own pathology that he omitted Barth and baseball.

Still on baseball, do you think the Lamb could give us a seventh-seal stretch before all hell breaks loose (Revelation 8:1)? 

And speaking of pathology: If Freud was so great, how come he never wrote The Interpretation of the American Dream? (Maybe for fear of the American id?)

I wish I had it in me to write two books:  A Theology of Bullshit Detection and LMAO on the Way to the Kingdom. Make that three: My Life in the Big Leagues. I would then die a happy grumpy old man.

I’m about to become a grandfather, so I’m planning ahead for some bedtime reading, to send my little dumpling off to sleep with happy dreams.  I’m thinking Blood Meridian and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Oh, and for a Bible story, Revelation 8-9. Any other suggestions?

Finally, after centuries in denial over ὀργή issues – Sodom and the Flood, Korah’s Rebellion and the Massacre of the Midianites, the pyrotechnics at Mount Carmel and the sack of Jerusalem – God used the inter-testamental period to take a course in anger management. The doctrine of penal substitution suggests it didn’t work. Or worse, that it did. 

Basel’s favourite son. The very embodiment of genius and grace. His work a charism, a thing of beauty, a divine manifestation of his vocation. His energy and work-rate, his eye for detail, the variety and comprehensiveness of his interventions – legendary. In fact, people who have seen him in action have described the experience as a kind of epiphany. The greatest of all time (a phrase he would modestly decline), yet his work unfinished. No, not Karl Barth, silly – Roger Federer!

So the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, published a prayer for the Wimbledon final:  “Loving God, … Guide Andy Murray in the choices that come to him with every ball.” Dumb, or what? I mean praying such a prayer to Murray’s actual opponent.  (See David Foster Wallace’s wonderful essay “Federer as Religious Experience”.)  And the inanity of it. This guy could be the next Archbishop of Canterbury – and American Anglicans think ECUSA’s got problems with its episcopal leadership.

I see that ECUSA has repented of the heresy of speciesism (though I presume that in the proposed funeral rites , cats [“I did it my way”] and dogs [“Amazing grace … that saved a bitch like me”] are a zoological metonymy, and we can expect rubrics for hamsters and canaries, turtles and goldfish).  I suppose the next heresy up will be Christianity.

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney, the C of E, and ECUSA: Moe, Larry, and Curly.

If according to biblical anthropology, a human being is a psychosomatic unity, a unity of soul and body, then you could say that according to biblical soteriology, a recreated human being is a pistergonic unity, a unity of faith and action. Pace James, faith without works is not dead, it was stillborn. The idea that we are saved by something that happens in our heads is not so much wrong as unintelligible. Wittgenstein asked: “Does it make sense to ask ‘How do you know that you believe?’ – and is the answer: ‘I know it by introspection’?” No and no. Francis begged, Martin nailed, Dietrich conspired, Rosa sat – there is faith.

Language can be a beauty, but it can also be a witch (cf. Wittgenstein) whose most evil spell is to turn us into liars.

The Oprahfication of contemporary spirituality means that today’s Pilgrim must fight the giant of High Self-Esteem, the hobgoblin of Inner Belief, and the foul fiend of Feel-Good, all of whom will be encountered in the Hills of Hopelessness.

The devil is at his most dangerous not in the wilderness but at the oasis.

WWJD? The one-size-fits-all answer is: get himself into trouble.

It’s the 60th anniversary of Mere Christianity. Conservatives are in a celebratory mood. Yet Lewis was decidedly thin on several staple evangelical doctrines. Tom Wright himself admits that Lewis “was wary of penal substitution, not bothered by infallibility or inerrancy, and decidedly dodgy on justification by faith,” nor was Lewis’ doctrine of hell hot on the traditional climatology. Jeez, how “unsound” can you get and still be an evangelical icon? So I’m looking for an honest critical appraisal of the theology of C. S. Lewis by the evangelical literati to mark this diamond year – say a festschrift entitled Near Christianity.

After two episodes in the UK, you can’t hate how The Newsroom sticks it to stupid (though I see that after bad reviews, Sorkin has sacked his writing team). But let’s be under no illusion: The Newsroom is no exception to the media captivity to American exceptionalism. The overture sets the theme: “It isn’t” – there is, yes, a hiatus in the unique greatness of the US, but it’s only a glitch: “It isn’t – but it can be” – and we know it can be because it was. The fantasy of the nation with a noble past and a glorious destiny goes all the way down and, from right to left, all the way across.

As a lover of felines, I much prefer analytical philosophers to quantum physicists. The former quietly observe cats on mats, the latter lock them in steel boxes with a 50:50 chance of a cruel death from hydrocyanic acid. Of course, I appreciate that the famous thought-experiment requires an animal of intelligence: with no uncertainty, Schrödinger’s dog would leap into the box, roll over, and then wolf down the poison capsule with a drink from a portaloo.  

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” There’s another irretrievable loss to global warming: it will eventually render the seminal Berkeleyan thought-experiment incomprehensible to Philosophy 101 students.

According to modernist theology, there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and patristics.

Awesome landscapes, mythopoeic characters, a narrative relentlessly driven by greed and brutality, powerful plot-embedded social commentary, moments of mordant farce, tiny nuggets of grace (maybe excavatable, maybe not) in a nihilistic cosmic imaginary – one critic writes that “plans to make a movie out of Blood Meridian are career-ending.” Step up, brothers Coen. You’ve done the preliminary sketches for it in No Country for Old Men (author) and True Grit (genre). Now for a career-climaxing masterpiece. John Huston had the guts to film the unfilmable American epic Moby-Dick. Have the chutzpah to film its problem-posing but surely filmable contemporary equivalent. Just don’t screw up the ending as Huston did.

I always feel sorry for Canadians living in the UK: they are often mistaken for Americans. In fact, whenever the US is waging a war, I tell people that I’m a Canadian. So only my wife and kids know I’m a Yank.

People sometimes ask me, as an ex-pat of 40 years (London, Haslemere, Oxford, and for the last three decades, Swansea), (a) what I miss about the States, and (b) were I to return to the States, what I would miss about the UK.  Let’s see … (a) Big warm soft pretzels and good chunky peanut butter. Chipmunks and bluebirds.  New England falls. Proper cussing. The energy. The sun. African-American and American-Jewish culture. Whiffle ball. Mennonites. Mom. (b) British beers and ubiquitous access to Indian cuisine. The NHS (back home to barbarism). Unarmed police. Unarmed neighbours. Unarmed children. Generally sane conservative evangelicals. Rugby Union. Roundabouts. Democracy. British irony.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

The year without prayer

And then there was the year without prayer. Or was it two years? Three? Or five? I guess I lost count. Anyway, all that time I could not pray. 

Don't ask me why, don't ask me to explain it. It's not that I stopped believing: not exactly. It's just that everything around me was a terrible silence, and any word, a shout or just a whisper, would only make the silence echo louder. It's not that I had stopped loving: not completely. It's just that my heart was cracked inside me, and all the words seemed stillborn, choked by sadness before they ever could get out. It's not that I stopped trying: not quite. It's just that I tried to pray instead of praying. It is the difference between trying to swim and swimming, between trying to remember someone's name and remembering. You might come close, but in the end it makes no difference. In the end it is not a matter of degrees. 

Sometimes my wanting to pray came so close to the actual thing that I could almost feel it. Sometimes I was thrilled by the feeling of almost praying, just as a child in water, limbs thrashing, thrills at the feeling that swimming might really be possible after all, then sinks. 

I said the words, of course, I don't mean that I never said the words. I prayed the Lord's Prayer, I prayed the Gloria, I prayed the Te Deum, I prayed the Psalter, I prayed the Jesus Prayer and the Hail Mary and any other prayer that seemed reliable and serviceable enough, any prayer that seemed to work for other people. But it was like hearing a joke that you do not understand. Everyone else is laughing. You chuckle too, just to be sociable, but it sounds pretty hollow.

St Augustine says that wanting to love God is already love for God. It is a beautiful thought, the thought of a saint filled with tenderness for the difficulties of ordinary believers. I have often clung to that thought, and have hoped that it was true. In my year without prayer I wondered if the desire to pray might also be a prayer. I hoped so. But it didn't seem a very safe bet. 

To pray – not just to want to pray but actually to speak a word, a single word of prayer – that's what I needed. But all the words were false, because my heart was false. The words that I recited, all good straight honest words, got twisted up inside my mouth. Like I was saying them only to avoid God. Like all my praying was really just another way of hiding. 

And yet I wanted – I think I wanted – to be found. To be seen. To be known so well that all my words would be unlocked, with nothing left to hide or to protect, nothing secret, and then groping in the silence I would find that one true word, the good word I was always looking for, and would present it like an offering, a little thing, so small, almost insignificant: my prayer.

But I could not find, have never found, that word. Maybe this search, this groping about for words, this always-wanting, will be enough. Maybe the year without prayer will last until the end of my life, until the last sigh when all at once the true word is pronounced, a word that is something like acceptance, something like thanks, something like surprise, something like pure joy and pure sadness, total discovery and total loss. Maybe that last sigh will carry me safely over into eternity, into the bright abyss of the word of God. Maybe that sigh will blend imperceptibly with the word of God's eternity. Maybe both words will sound the same note after all. Maybe I will hear with new ears, and find that all my life was just that note and nothing more, one sigh, one long unbroken word of prayer. Maybe the note will sound clearest of all in this year, my year without prayer.

Maybe that's when I will come to know that all along my life was hid with Christ in God. Christ who breathes God's word out of eternity into time, and breathes one sigh, the truest prayer, back again into eternity. Christ who became as we are and groped about for just the right word to describe it all, and then, having found it, offered it up to God, a small thing, fragile, almost insignificant: his own life.

Sunday 15 July 2012

A new hymn: Christ is Lord of all creation

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Rhuddlan)

Christ is Lord of all creation,
     rules the universe in peace;
brings to judgement every nation
     which would be the world’s police:
Lamb of God who lies with lions,
     slain, he conquers Babel’s beast.

Weapons used for mass destruction,
     tools deployed in torture cell – 
horror shows of sheer revulsion
     scripted, acted, shot in hell: 
Where is God? Not hid in heaven,
     here, in blood – Immanuel!

In this world of fear and violence, 
     in the teeth of hate and death;
courage, Christian, and defiance
     till your faithful final breath:
in our deeds and proclamation – 
     “God is love” our shibboleth.

Friday 13 July 2012

Yankee doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

I see it became fashionable this July 4th to debunk the fashionable debunkers of American exceptionalism (oops – I mean patriotism).  I hope that there was a copious distribution of long plastic spoons at the barbecues.  And that that discordant sound – Bill Stringfellow turning in his grave – didn’t disturb the celebrations too much.

Ad rem I: The US was founded on a bloodbath; sustained by the cruellest chattel slavery; expanded by genocidal slaughter and dislocations; interrupted and consolidated by a massive fratricidal conflict; extended overseas with imperial swagger and colonial exploitation, maintained with the help of criminal puppet regimes; and culminating (to date) in the monstrosities of Iraq and Afghanistan, wars inaugurated with the ethically sophisticated argument of “payback” and vindicated by the political lie of “spreading democracy”.  July 4th as a National Day of Mourning and Repentance – that is the only act of Christian witness to which the Church can give its Amen with any theological integrity. 

Ad rem II: “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance has morphed into “the only nation under God” – or even into “one God under nation”.  I accept the good faith of those who argue for a theologically vigilant account of patriotism as a penultimate loyalty.  Their good faith – but not their good sense.  In the phrase “God and country”, the conjunction functions as a hyphen, even an equal sign; the depth syntax of absolute subordination is semantically irretrievable.  I’m afraid that contemporary American patriotism is simply too idolatrously compromised for anything but an uncompromising Christian Nein!

Is it okay to display a flag in church?  Sure – as long as no one is there.  If someone is there, it’s still okay – as long as you take out the cross.  Then at least the object of worship is unequivocal.  God Hates Flags.  So a liturgical suggestion for that National Day of Mourning and Repentance: the burning of the flag and the marking of each congregant with its ash, with – to counter America as the “political Messiah” (Melville) – words adapted from Psalm 2: “The One who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds the nation in derision.  I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill, not Capitol Hill.”

Some say God also hates fags, but British Barthians will be relieved to know that he’s okay with pipes.

There are rumours of funding cuts at Princeton’s Center for Barth Studies: George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack have been seen wearing “Save the Whale” tee shirts around campus.

Gay marriage will not undermine traditional marriage, but, God willing, it will subvert “family values”.  Otherwise, the hell with it.

Speaking of hell – the heated discussion seems to have gone off the boil lately.  I put it down to evangelical burnout.  Oops!  I spoke too soon.  I just read in the Church Times (6 July) of a new study suggesting that “belief in hell means less crime”.  Ah, the utilitarian argument from deterrence – desperation or what?  Meanwhile, recidivism in the church remains steady at 100%. 

WWJD?  Ask his mum, surely.  That’s the best reason I know for becoming a Catholic.

If Jesus got married to Mary Magdalene, he was (if you know your boy-meets-girl biblical conventions – e.g., Genesis 29:1ff., Exodus 2:15ff.) two-timing the woman at the well.  Three-timing, if you count the beloved disciple.

The war on drugs is an idiocy.  It’s time for peace talks.  Mind, the heroin delegation will keep nodding off, and it will be hard to get a word in edgewise with the speed freaks, but the cannabis contingent is bound to agree to any terms for a Taco Bell takeout.

Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God is a Pauline game-changer.  There are only three excuses for not reading it: (1) you have underdeveloped biceps (as you will be unable to elevate the book to make ocular contact); (2) you have manual osteoarthritis (as you will be unable to flip from the text to the endnotes without risk of irreversible damage to the articular cartilage); (3) you have less than six months to live.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  Rudolf Otto’s famous phrase, coined for the numinous – given the ubiquity and omnipotence of the market, it now does double-duty for the numismatic.

Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” is now looking rather adolescent.  We need to take it etsi Dawkins non daretur.

The palaeogenetic fallacy: the mistake of young people who assume that just because a grumpy old fart is sounding off again, what he says has got to be wrong.  Even a broken grandfather clock is right twice a day.

Liberalism and evangelicalism are both right about one thing: the other is wrong.

Sign on the gate of the manse of a dyslexic minister, known for his sermons on God’s “dark and disruptive grace” (Flannery O’Connor): “Beware of Dog”.

Some very short books on Bible-linked themes: The Geneva Convention and the Conquest of Canaan; Mechanisms of Denial in the Psalms; Ecclesiastes: The Universe Explained; My Country Right or Wrong: The Patriotism of Jeremiah; The Trickle-Down Economics of Amos; Mariology and the Gospel of Mark; The Beatitudes in the Theology of Joel Osteen; Let’s Make a Deal: Salvation in Paul; Inerrency and the Bible.

The exposures in the UK of the criminal culture, first of the Murdoch media, and now of investment banking, though a breaking-news “Duh!”, are making me feel a visceral Žižekian sympathy for the Reign of Terror.  I’m thinking: erect a guillotine in Trafalgar Square and I’m your man to dispatch the political and financial ruling elite, enthusiastically waving their heads before the hordes of the fucking-pissed-off.  Madam Fabricius has agreed to do the knitting.

Paedophile priests, venal journalists, greedy bankers, shameless tax-dodgers, complacent politicians – jeez, arms dealers are beginning to look ethical. 

Some churches use wafers at Communion, others bread.  My proposal is toast – from the quirky autobiography of that title by the British chef Nigel Slater, which begins: “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.”  At the Sunday morning service, and with biblical warrant from John 21:1-14, the church would invite people to the Lord’s Breakfast.  And because, following Slater, it would be a converting as well as a nurturing ordinance, the table would be completely open – though Marmite would be a mandatory penitential spread for egregious sinners.

“Bishops”: mutton dressed up as the Lamb.

I see that there was a Blah Labour Seminar Event at the University of Nottingham in early July.

Former director of Fermilab and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, who coined the term “God particle”, originally wanted to call it “that goddamn particle”, but his publisher wouldn’t let him.  Lederman should have gone to Business Plus – it published Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule (2007).  Then – who knows? – with an editorial flash of brilliance, we might now be referring to the “Asshole particle” (not to be confused with a Black Hole) – and no longer thinking of physicists as a bunch of remote geeks. 

I support Obama because he smoked pot.  I thought of switching to Romney when I read that he was a member of the LSD Church.  Then I realised it was a misprint.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Sydney lecture: Paul Dafydd Jones on Barth and patience

If you're in Sydney this week, you might like to come along to a public lecture by Paul Dafydd Jones on “Patience and passion: Christian theology after Karl Barth.” The lecture aims to show the potential of patience as a major theological concept; it ranges from divine sovereignty and human freedom to questions of sanctification and sexuality. Jones' lecture will be followed by a response by Matthew Wilcoxen, then a time of general discussion. I'll be hosting the evening. 

If you'd like to join us, it's at 7.30 this Wednesday night, at United Theological College in North Parramatta. Entry is free; drinks and supper will be served afterwards.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Words, words, words: F&T seven years on

Whoops! I started this blog on a whim, and it looks like it's been going for seven years now. Seven years! 

So I've just spent a few minutes glancing back over the archive – all those posts, all those opinions, all that writing. Looking back over it, I had a sinking feeling. 

Who wrote all those thousands of posts, and why? Why is this person so opinionated about everything, including things he knows nothing about? Why is he so quick to brag about the things he knows and so careful to conceal the things he doesn't? Why is he so dismissive of some people and so effusive towards others? And why does he write in this manner? All that pseudo-poetical posturing? All those dubious jumbles of metaphors? All those excitable outpourings of adjectives? Why is he never content just to state a thing plainly and be done with it? What is he trying to prove anyway? And to whom?

And why has he so painstakingly, so fastidiously concealed the real issues of his own life? His frustrations and disappointments, where are they? His anxieties, his doubts, his shame? His anger, especially with himself? The restlessness and hurt that he carries around with him – why has he disguised all that? What is he trying to bury under all those words? And who is he hiding from anyway? Only himself? 

Sifting through the rubble of words, I also noticed a few things I really liked. Some things were well said, and I'm glad somebody said them. Whoever wrote those bits, I rather like him. But I don't recognise him. I am trying to recall what might have motivated him to write like that on those rare occasions when he actually did write well. Was his thirst for affirmation so strong at those moments that it produced, of its own accord, something worthwhile? And even those best moments (I see now, embarrassed) are not half so good as they must have seemed when they were being written. All the excesses, the mistakes, the lack of discipline, the egotism – it's frightful to have to witness it.

But I'm making a mistake. I am talking about writing as if it were a thing in itself, a fixed object, a school exercise composed for an impartial examiner. When all along what this blog has brought me is friendship – the good and pleasant society of other people. 'Words, words, words' – they are very sociable things really. That's what good about them.

I remember now why I started writing here seven years ago. I was working in a tedious job, I went to a tedious church, I lived in a tedious city, and for the life of me I couldn't find anyone to talk to about the things that really interested me. One day on my lunch break I started writing, in the modest hope that someone might reply. I was like the castaway who rolls up his letter and puts it in a bottle and throws it away.

I wasn't disappointed either. Looking back over those 'posts' – all those letters in bottles adrift in cyberspace – the surprising thing is how many answers have come back, and how many friendships I've enjoyed as a result. The business of life is to acquire friends; and, as it turns out, a blog is one excellent way to go about it. It is surprising to think how big the cast of characters in my life has become, and how small it was before.

Forget about the writing, then. Perhaps it was all a mistake; no matter. I believe in the forgiveness of sins, otherwise I would never have the courage to write anything at all. 'We are beggars, that is true' – every paragraph proves it. And even if it was all a mistake, even if every word was wrong, I am glad for all of it when I think of all those friends I never would have had otherwise. (For instance: what could be more ridiculous than to go through life without knowing Kim Fabricius? What would be the point of a life like that?) I suppose that's what grace is all about. Not that your failures are erased, but that your worst mistakes become, by a mysterious providence, the source of all that is best and happiest in your life. You write badly, all the time, and as a result you get some friends.

So I roll up this note too, and shove it in a bottle for the waves. Why not? If I ever look back on these words one day, I suppose I'll be displeased and wish I'd never said it, or had said it better, or whatever. But perhaps someone, somewhere, will find it washed up on the shore. Perhaps they will open it. Perhaps they will answer: another friend!

Tuesday 3 July 2012

As long as they spell your name right: Rowan Williams and the Observer

After last week's posts, the Observer added an apology to the end of their piece on Rowan Williams, and removed the offending paragraph. An acknowledgement also appeared at the end of Theo Hobson's piece in The Guardian. The Islamophobia Watch website summed up the whole debacle in an extended post, rightly concluding: "It turns out that the Observer report is in fact misleading in almost every respect." Though to give them their due, they did manage to spell Rowan's name correctly.

No doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury was shocked and surprised to see his views misrepresented in the British press. But it's all water under the bridge. And let the one who has never misunderstood Rowan Williams cast the first stone. (I don't understand him, and I wrote a whole book about it!)

Anyway, it wasn't journalism's finest hour. But for a more positive and hopeful portrayal of the journalistic arts, and the capacity of the news media to "speak truth to stupid", be sure to check out the new HBO series The Newsroom. It's the latest creation of Aaron Sorkin, whom you'll remember from The Social Network, A Few Good Men, and greatest-show-of-all-time The West Wing.


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