Wednesday 26 June 2013

Apostles' Creed (7): sits and the right of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead

The next video on the Apostles' Creed is up – on the last judgment. This one features a cameo from my son James, who was pretty restless that morning. When he decided that I was going on too long, he came out and (literally) started wrapping things up:

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Dystopic doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

“One Christian is no Christian” (Tertullian). Two Christians is a schism waiting to happen.

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian again). Most of it, however, seems to have spilled on rocky ground.

And Jesus said to them, “Go, therefore, to all nations (especially the ones you can colonise) and make disciples (ensuring they tick all the right boxes), baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (guaranteeing interminable vituperative debates about paedobaptism and baptismal regeneration, and the nature of the Trinitarian relations – the Filioque should run and run), and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (except the Sermon on the Mount, of course). And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (when I’ll burn the shit out of anyone who looks at me funny). —The Great Commission (longer version)

The televangelist tells me that Jesus loves me just as I am. Then he tells me that unless I change, Jesus is going to hate me (at least I reckon that’s a fair deduction from the threat that unless I change, Jesus is going to have me tortured forever and ever). However, there is no cognitive dissonance because I don’t actually believe the evangelist when he tells me that Jesus loves me just as I am, as given the face-lift, nose-job, and hair-transplant, he’s clearly not speaking from experience.

Watching commercials, I expect to see a celebrity trying to sell me some product, like the latest tanning miracle – just as on the God Channel, only there it’s during the programme, the celebrities have better tans, and they’re even less likely to be using the product they’re selling.

People often talk of church planting when they mean church cloning.

Proverbs 18:24: epitaph for Facebook.

Don’t knock worship songs. They have their use. For instance, they’re a god-send for atheists trying to demonstrate the validity of Freud’s theory of projection.

Nietzsche, O Nietzsche! You are compelling to me in the same way some women are attracted to bad boys. Or more irresistibly still, like seafarers are catastrophically drawn to the Sirens: I must be strapped to the gospels before I dare navigate the likes of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil.

You must read Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s Just War as Christian Discipleship (2009). It is very impressive. Its appropriation of Augustine is under-critical and, unsurprisingly, its Christology is thin (i.e., non-apocalyptic and -participatory), but otherwise its argument is so cogent that it could turn a pacifist into a just warrior – were he Michael rather than Mike. That is to say, its template of just war criteria is so theologically rigorous and comprehensive that it is hard to see its applicability outside of Revelation 12’s war in heaven. It can only convince earthlings to become or remain pacifists.

On the subject of just war, check out A Theology of the Cross Hairs by Amy Chaplin.

“Obama Odd-Word-Out Game”: drones, Guantanamo, surveillance, Nobel Peace Prize.

In the UK, prisoners wear grey or orange uniforms consisting of tracksuit bottoms and tops. Surely, however, if we want to send a message to the big-time criminals out there, the standard issue should be Savile Row suits.

“Methodists that I have met throughout the country in recent days are shocked by what happened in Woolwich to Lee Rigby, but also saddened by apparent reprisal attacks on Islamic buildings, or verbal abuse against individuals.” That’s Mike King, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference. The asymmetry of the reactions – “shocked” on the one hand, “saddened” on the other – am I reading too much into it to detect something Islamophobic about it? Or is it – an equally troubling state of affairs — that we’ve become so accustomed to Islamophobia that acts of violence against Muslims causes sorrow but not outrage?

Scripture asks, “What are people?” (Psalm 8:4); capitalism asks, “What are people for?”

If you divide the poor into “the deserving” and “the undeserving”, you have lost your soul.

“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway”: the dictum of Will Campbell, and a fitting text for his life and work. Will Campbell, who actually took seriously the command of Jesus to love your enemies: hence his solidarity with the victim, yet his refusal to victimise the victimiser – to scapegoat scapegoaters (cf. René Girard) – in order to unmask the myth of redemptive violence, to break the vicious cycle of oppression, ressentiment, and retribution.

Pity without respect is but contempt dressed in moral finery.

The Revd. Marcus Ramshaw called the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby a “w***er” for declaring that gay marriage would effectively “abolish” the traditional institution of marriage. The Revd. Arun Arora, the C of E’s communications director, replied: “Calling another Christian a w***er doesn’t work for me as a priestly response.” There, in nuce, you have two indications as to why the C of E is in such a mess: (1) its mealy-mouthedness (for Christ’s sake, the word is “wanker”); and (2) its two-tier ethics (like calling Welby a “w***er” would have been okay as a lay response – er, as in stable gay lay relationships should be affirmed, but not stable gay relationships between priests [Some Issues in Human Sexuality, 1991?]).

A recent survey from the British Nutrition Foundation reveals that 25% of UK primary pupils think that fish fingers come from chickens or pigs. Mind, these are children, and 25% isn’t bad when you consider that 40% of American adults believe that fish have fingers. (Just kidding – I think.)

Jesus said that in the new world, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; having passed beyond death into resurrection, with no prospect of death, there will be no need for reproduction and hence we may assume no desire for it, just as now as a 64-year old I no longer have a desire to play rugby though there was a time when I lived for it. (Not a good analogy but never mind.) – N.T. Wright. Wright’s parenthesis is an understatement. No rugby in heaven? As if. Wright is clearly not to be trusted on the subject of eschatology.

If Christ has no feet, no hands, no eyes but mine, God help him playing centerfield.

The best sermon I’ve ever preached is probably the worst sermon they’ve ever heard.

There are my sermons, my propositions, and now my doodlings. I seem to be shrinking. Following this trajectory, I suppose that soon (though, dear reader, not soon enough) writing a sentence will be beyond me, and I will be like a baby uttering his first words – or a dying man stuttering his last.

Towards the end of his life, Augustine, reviewing his earlier works, wrote the Retractationes, if not “retractions”, still “corrections”. A wonderful precedent in authorial humility and responsibility, and pregnant with ecumenical possibility. I guess the only excuse a lot of theologians have for failing to imitate the master is that the results would rival Barth’s Church Dogmatics in length – and, like it, probably remain unfinished.

Friday 21 June 2013

The strangest theology essay of all time?

In my doctrine of the Trinity class this semester, I received a paper titled "Augustinian Dreaming." It started out conventionally enough – explanations of Augustine's analogies of the Trinity, quotes from Rowan Williams, observations about "the spiritual transformation of this fallen earthly creature, which at best represents a foggy image of God," and so on. 

Then I got to the the last page. When I read it, I called the student aside and said: "As your teacher, I have to tell you that this is completely unacceptable, and you must never do this again in an academic essay. As a human being, I loved it – can I post it on my blog?" The student, who shall remain anonymous, granted permission: so it is with pleasure that I reproduce for you here the final section of his paper on the analogies of the Trinity in books 9-10 of Augustine's Trinity. (Disclaimer to any students who may be reading: this is not the way to get high marks...)

At any rate, I'm sure this will clear up any questions you might have had about Augustine's trinitarian theology:

Meanwhile Back In Creatureville

Anyway, on with the show, said the mute dwarf with the stunted knee caps to the blind ice cream attendant who’d already vacated what he didn’t know to the occupied tenants who didn’t live there anymore due to the fact that Rowan Williams was standing backwards in his vestry complaining that his bells no longer rang since vacating the local nun who’d never been occupied before except through Papal eyes that had fogged his glasses on a hot steamy winter’s night after forgetting that he’d been vaccinated against amnesia, meanwhile faraway from within the backwoods of Umbria in the Donovan Hills there was Francis and his friend Mellow Yellow trying to wear their love like heaven while counting all the tulips which didn’t grow there until the day came when they decided to venture beyond their dream and visit God who lived in Rome and wore a funny hat, he was none too pleased when all the beggars arrived at the marble palace interrupting his hand feeding of the penguins in his harem which ended up in a heated discussion about Martini Lucifer and the Druids of Seclusion until the mute dwarf stumbled in claiming you had a lot of shots at Martini and now you want to cosmic the beggars who are secretly just Augustinian infants who also confessed but you just have the Augustinian blues because you had nothing to confess to which the penguins sighed and departed with the beggars after which Pope Perfect sank back into another shot of bourbon, but upon their arrival in the Donovan Hills some of the penguins discarded their dilemma and began playing tambourines with smoked out eyes and chanting Hare Krishna while others bared their chastity screaming juice me, so Augustine with a passion for writing words of passion got a job as a juice-maker which he used as inspiration for his next book while the local Druids began planting rocks in preparation for the solstice when suddenly Sunshine Superman appeared on the horizon (which is why the Stonehenge was never finished) and just when the story was about to end all the Wilbury children arrived after spending many years travelling from Greenwich Village following a Purple Haze via Voodoo Chile and collecting multiples along the way, including a Mexican Sultan who solicited a Black Magic Woman claiming you have to change your evil ways while all her sultry voice could moan was, touch me with your Samba Pa Ti


Sunday 16 June 2013

Apostles' Creed (6): he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven

Here's the sixth sermon on the Apostles' Creed – on Christ's descent and resurrection:

Thursday 6 June 2013

Origen and the problem of writing

Origen was the church's first professional writer; but in his day Christianity was not yet a literary religion. Jerome lists 800 books by Origen, but a more accurate list by Eusebius details 2,000 books (most of them now lost). Origen's patron Ambrose of Alexandria commissioned most of these books and put a huge staff of scribes and copyists at Origen's disposal.

When Origen was asked to respond to Celsus, a pagan writer who had attacked Christianity in a book called True Doctrine, Origen observed that a written response was not really appropriate for the Christian faith. "Now Jesus is always being falsely accused," Origen says in the preface to Contra Celsum. "He is still silent in face of this and does not answer with his voice; but he makes his defence in the lives of his genuine disciples, for their lives cry out the real facts and defeat all false charges." The only real apologetics is the life of Christ's followers, not written arguments. Indeed Origen suggests that producing a written defence of the faith might actually diminish the vitality of the Christian community: "I would therefore go so far as to say that the defence which you ask me to compose will weaken the force of the defence that is in the mere facts, and detract from the power of Jesus."

He goes on to write the book anyway, a big doorstopper of a book, 500 pages in the English translation. But his bad conscience – his need to apologise for the act of writing – is revealing.

When he got to the fifth book of his massive Commentary on the Gospel of John – he had completed four books so far, and had only got through a few verses – Origen paused to reflect on the words of Ecclesiastes: "My son, beware of making many books" (Ecclesiastes 12.12). He admits that he seems to have transgressed this command, and he explores this problem at length before resuming the commentary.

In the first place, Origen notes that "none of the saints has produced numerous compositions and set out his understanding in many books." Even Moses left only five books, and Paul was content to dash off a few lines when the occasion demanded. As for John, Origen poignantly observes that he "has left one Gospel while confessing that he could compose so many that the world could not contain them."

Origen is distressed by the sheer quantity of all that he has written compared to the prophets, apostles, and saints. "I get dizzy as though I were suffering vertigo, lest perhaps by obeying you [Ambrose] I have disobeyed God and have not imitated the saints." And he quotes another seemingly damning Wisdom saying: "In a multitude of words you will not escape sin" (Proverbs 10.19).

Yet Origen ventures a defence of his prodigious literary output. He notes that the perfect Word of God is not "a multitude of words" but one single Word. A person who contradicts this Word is being loquacious; he says too much, and sins in what he says. But a person who speaks truthfully always speaks the one simple Word, "even if he says everything so as to leave out nothing." You could talk forever and still be saying just one Word; and you could speak a pithy falsehood and be condemned for multiplying words. Truth is simple, falsehoods are multiple. As an example of the simplicity of truth, Origen notes that there are not four Gospels in scripture; rather "there is truly one gospel through the four."

The conclusion is that it's quality that counts, not quantity. If Origen can set forth the truth in his many writings then he will be speaking only one word. But if he speaks contrary to the truth in even one place, he will have written "many books."

The whole procedure is a striking example of Origen's spiritual exegesis, an attempt to press beneath the literal sense of the prohibition against "making many books" and to yield up its theological meaning. Only after securing this exegetical conclusion does Origen also mention the obvious practical exigency: the heretics are busy writing "many books" (literally, and in a spiritual sense!), and somebody has to answer them "on behalf of the teaching of the church." Otherwise the inquisitive and the vulnerable will be led astray.

Origen says that he has offered this defence "for myself" as well as "for those who are able to speak and write." He is assuaging his own troubled conscience, but he is also spelling out an exegetical rationale for a literary Christian culture, a culture in which writers can "make many books" while cleaving to the one simple Word.

By the late fourth century such a literary Christian culture could be taken for granted. Nothing could more vividly illustrate the changes Christianity had undergone than a remark from Athanasius, an Egyptian theologian writing around the middle of the fourth century. In a letter written during one of his many exiles (if only Athanasius had a dollar for every time he was exiled!) he apologises for the brevity of his previous 50-page letter. "I thought what I wrote was ever so brief, and I accused myself of great lethargy for not being able to write as much as is humanly possible against those who are impious toward the Holy Spirit" (Letters to Serapion, 2.1.1).

"I accused myself of great lethargy": Athanasius has a guilty conscience too. He feels bad for not having written enough.

By the fifth century Christianity has produced a writer like Augustine. One finds him in a provincial town in North Africa, an ageing bishop carefully overseeing the maintenance of the vast library of his own works. Augustine devotes the end of his life to itemising each book chronologically; he makes revisions and corrections; he collaborates with his librarian Possidius, taking every pain to ensure the preservation of his works for posterity. If some earlier Christians had happened to be writers, Augustine is an author. He writes not simply to refute heresy or to respond to this or that local problem; he writes because he is an author. He writes for his contemporaries, and for those not yet born. He thinks of himself essentially as a man of letters. His identity is bound up with the production of literature. In a letter of 412, Augustine had remarked: "I try to be one of those who write by making progress and make progress by writing" (Epistle 143.2). And in his De Trinitate Augustine describes writing as a path of discovery, a way of seeking the face of God.

In the same period, one finds an author like the Roman poet Prudentius, for whom writing is not a tactical necessity but a spiritual vocation in its own right. In the preface to his collection of poems, Prudentius writes:

When I write or speak of these things,
how I wish to break free from the chains of my body
to the place where my nimble tongue's last sound carries me!

[Haec dum scribo vel eloquor
vinclis o utinam corporis emicem
liber quo tulerit lingua sono mobilia ultimo!]

Augustine writes to make progress; he writes to seek God. Prudentius writes to transcend the world of the flesh; he writes to be saved. Writing has become something quite different here, something Origen could never have imagined. It has become part of the apparatus of spiritual life, a means of purgation and transformation. Writing has become a vocation and a spiritual discipline. Writers have become authors. With Prudentius and Augustine, the transformation of Christianity into a literary culture is complete.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Apostles' creed video (5): suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried

And here's the fifth sermon in the series on the Apostles' Creed. Unfortunately the recording didn't work for the first minute, so you miss out on a quote from Karl Barth: Pontius Pilate enters the creed "like a dog into a nice room."

Monday 3 June 2013

Scooby doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

God loves otherness. She’s an anti-Sameite.

The rich man in his castle, / The poor man at his gate, / The black man picking cotton,/ The woman washing plates – but the gay man marrying his mate? It’s so not order of creation, isn’t it?

One hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in ten Confederate States. Two years later, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution extended the prohibition to all of the United States. Of course, the anti-abolitionists insisted that government had neither the right nor the power to contradict the Bible, Christian tradition, and natural law, all of which speak quite perspicuously on the institution of slavery.

Gay marriage is not just morally wrong but (like dissoluble marriage) ontologically impossible. Attending a gay wedding (like attending a second wedding), one thinks of Dr. Johnson, walking with Boswell, kicking the stone, declaring, “Thus do I refute Berkeley.”

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, because I spoke out against the homosexualists.” That’s Niemöller updated in the light of the apocalyptic tone – the beginning of state fascism, the elimination of Christianity, Queens who are lesbians (and presumably Kings who are queens) – of the anti-gay marriage lobby in the UK.

In protest against the legalisation of gay marriage in France, Dominique Venner shoots himself in the mouth at the altar in Notre Dame Cathedral. A sad, sad symbolic (Freudian?) gesture, if not prophetic action, rather lacking in both tactical nous and strategic foresight, as presumably Venner will be spending eternity in hell with the wedded sodomites he so opposed – and in the same seventh circle (if in the middle rather than the inner ring).

You can always count on some Christian leader to pontificate on two subjects about which we know next to nothing for sure: suffering and sex. So like you’re going to trust them not to talk guff about God, right?

Nature? Nurture? Mystery!

In his recent Making Sense of Sex, Adrian Thatcher likens the experience of post-coital serenity to the sharing of the peace at the eucharist. So does the liturgy in Thatcher’s church contain a rubric for having a cigarette before the distribution of the elements?

Theology is the text; literature is the commentary.

Shelley famously declaimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Good poets. Bad poets are the world’s US Congress.

Scientists are confident that the fossil remains of a prehistoric quadruped, recently discovered on a farm near the town of Hicksville, New York, will revolutionise our understanding of Palaeolithic zoology and mammalian evolution. Here is an artist’s reconstruction of the creature –

– the Hicks bison.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room, suddenly I was overcome by a feeling of foreboding. I asked God for a sign. Then I looked around the room, and on the wall was a large photograph: mirabile dictu! – what are the chances? – the cover photograph of my book. My heart sank. “Jeez, Lord!”... I asked for another sign.

On Saturday morning, around six, I was sitting in my study about to pray. I looked up. In the front garden, not six feet away – a fox! – sleek, still, watchful. It just stood there for a couple of minutes, and I just watched … I just watched. Then, concerned – early traffic, passers-by – I tapped the window. It turned to me, stared, then leapt and vanished over the low red-brick wall. And that was my prayer-time.

What is celebrity texting but digital digit painting?

You go to church. Perhaps much of what you hear in the prayers, hymns, let alone the sermon, doesn’t ring true. Still, say “Amen”. You have worshipped. God isn’t looking for your agreement.

I love the quip, aimed at the rich and powerful, privileged by birth, that just because you find yourself on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple. And the stupid ones – you can hear them standing at the hot corner yelling, “Hey Dad, I got a double!”

The enduring power and influence of Day, Hammarskjöld, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Romero: what might a bullshitless life look like, a truthful, kenotic life, life as a transformational grammar?

The monastery is the kitchen of civilisation: the telos of prayer is the production of beer, cheese, and chocolate.

So you’re a minister. Do you have an office? If you do, you’re not a minister. A CEO has an office, a minister has a study.

Wallace Stevens said that the most beautiful thing in the world is the world itself. Add that the most terrible thing in the world is the world itself and you’ve got the ergo to the book of Job.

The one insuperable sorrow of dying is knowing that your friends will grieve.

“We can honour the lives of the fallen while lamenting the gross destruction of war” (from Darkwood Brew). For Christians, unless “the fallen” includes the enemy’s fallen (observe the accompanying iconic Iwo Jima image), and the “lamenting” (biblically) includes emphatic protest at unjust wars (like every war the US has fought since WW II), this much trumpeted declaration becomes this year’s Memorial Day cliché. And speaking of a bombastic Memorial Day cliché – jeez, those camouflaged baseball caps: farcical, or what?

Physically, I am finding my mid-sixties to be a time of small change, i.e., the beginning of being nickeled and dimed to death.

My wife was paedobaptised a Lutheran – strike one (looking); confirmed an Anglican – strike two (screwball); converted to Catholicism – strike three (wild pitch). Finally, however, she married a Barthian Reformed minister. Moral: grace isn’t just another at-bat, it’s a walk-off after a K.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Apostles' Creed video (4): conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary

Here's the fourth installment in my sermon series on the Apostles' Creed:


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