Tuesday 30 July 2013

Dog-days doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

There once was a dentist named Thomas
And a hunky optician, Adonis;
With a hangman called Fred
They sold stickers that said:
“Honk Twice for the Lex Talionis!”

The trouble with liberals is that they don’t take sin and damnation seriously enough.  The trouble with evangelicals is that they don’t take sin and damnation seriously enough.

“Turn or Freeze!” The strident city centre evangelist had been reading Dante.

Behind the end zone stands the guy with a placard reading “Romans 3:16”.  He thought it would make a change from “John 3:16”, and be a more apt text for a football game.

Some people say that they have taken Jesus as their “personal” Lord and Taylor – sorry, “Saviour” – when what they mean is that they have taken Jesus as their “it’s-personal” Lord and Saviour.

The Alpha Course is misnamed.  It should be called the Alfalfa Course, after the perennial plant widely cultivated as cattle fodder (and liable to cause bloating).

I hear that the religious right is finally coming around to accepting global climate change, as a trade-off: they can blame it on gay marriage.

It’s hard to find a Protestant in the UK who has a good word for Thomas Crowell, but you never meet a Catholic who isn’t horrified when you inform them that Thomas More could be no less a shit.

That I can’t tell whether or not you are a Christian from your behaviour may constitute either the highest praise or the most damning criticism.

Were Luther alive and tweeting, I guess that in Vatican circles he would be known as the “Teutonic Troll”.  His on-line language would, no doubt be characteristically colourful – something like “OMG!  WUF?  IMHO, FUBAR!” – but he’d be as right about indulgences as he was in 1517.

A recent Horizon programme, “What Makes Us Human?”, reported an experiment that demonstrates that when it comes to lateral-thinking problem-solving, chimpanzees are more intelligent than humans.  Which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever observed the General Synod of the Church of England.

Lateral thinking?  The Synod cannot even do joined-up thinking.  To wit: in the C of E, on the advice of one woman (a queen), another woman (a prime minister) may appoint a bishop – who cannot be a woman.  Got it?

My year-old granddaughter has re-confirmed that when Jesus said we must become like children, he meant that we should be wild, disruptive, and utterly subversive of authority and discipline.  “Sing me to sleep?  Yeah, right – in your dreams!”

To really know someone, you need to know not only what they desire but also what they fear.  Indeed, often we are what – or whom – we fear.

We do not realise that we have been asleep and dreaming until we wake up.  The same goes at night.

I have seen faith crash in despair, but I have also seen faith rise from wreckage.

Suggested title for a definitive history of the United States: Road Kill: Travels with My Uncle (Sam).

Apparently Moby-Dick is among the top five famous novels never finished.  Which accounts for a lot of those “Save the Whale” t-shirts.

Atlas Shrugged, Jesus wept.

The first thing I plan to do when I retire is to read Joseph Frank’s one-volume biography Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (2010).  Then I am looking forward to being re-read by The Brothers Karamazov.

Of course, not only do great books read the reader, they also write the writer.

If Paul didn’t say what Douglas Campbell says he said, one hopes that the apostle would have the good grace to stand corrected.

Just think how often our Lord must have thought, if not said (cf. John 21:25), “God, what an asshole!”  Followed by bath ḳōl.

What position would Jesus play on a baseball team?  That’s easy: he’d be a closer.  No blown saves.

As Bartimaeus was saying to Jesus, “Life’s a ditch.”

Saturday 27 July 2013

Rock songs for another 25 theologians

by Kim Fabricius (a sequel to 50 rock songs)

Cyprian of Carthage: “Oh Mama” (Speed Orange)

George Fox: “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel)

Friedrich Schleiermacher: “More Than a Feeling” (Boston)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Animals)

Søren Kierkegaard:  “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin)

Friedrich Nietzsche: “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel)

Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Just the Two of Us” (Bill Withers)

Helmut Gollwitzer: “Sad Old Red” (Simply Red)

Simone Weil: “Tired of Waiting” (Kinks)

John A. T. Robinson: “Somewhere Out There” (Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram)

Tim LaHaye: “Rapture” (Blondie)

Hans Küng: “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” (George Harrison)

Gustavo Gutiérrez: “Poor Song” (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)

Thomas Altizer: “Losing My Religion” (R.E.M.)

Don Cupitt: “Are You for Real?” (Dedato)

Jimmy Swaggart: “Sexual Healing” (Marvin Gaye)

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza: “I Remember You” (Frank Ifield)

Tomáš Halík: “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses)

Jacquelyn Grant: “Black Magic Woman” (Santana)

Mark C. Taylor: “Pretzel Logic” (Steely Dan)

Beverly Roberts Gaventa: “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

James Alison: “Philadelphia Freedom” (Elton John)

Mark Driscoll: “I’m a Man” (Chicago)

Peter Rollins: “Quest for Fire” (Iron Maiden)

Ben Myers: “Down Under” (Men at Work)

Friday 26 July 2013

Rock songs for 50 theologians

by Kim Fabricius

Irenaeus: “Long Road Out of Eden” (Eagles)

Origen: “The First Cut Is the Deepest” (Sheryl Crow)

Pelagius: “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” (Aimee Mann)

St. Augustine: “Tortured, Tangled Hearts” (Dixie Chicks)

Isaac the Syrian: “Friend of the Devil” (The Grateful Dead)

St. Francis of Assisi: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (Temptations)

Anselm: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones)

Thomas Aquinas: “The Logical Song” (Supertramp)

Torquemada: “Torture” (Jackson Five)

Thomas More: “Chelsea Morning” (Joni Mitchell)

Thomas Cranmer: “Light My Fire” (The Doors)

Martin Luther: “Faith” (George Michael)

Ignatius of Loyola: “Soldier Boy” (The Shirelles)

John Calvin: “Show Some Emotion” (Joan Armatrading)

John of the Cross: “One of These Nights” (Eagles)

John Wesley: “Georgia on My Mind” (Ray Charles)

Jonathan Edwards: “Boris the Spider” (The Who)

William Blake: “Heaven and Hell” (Black Sabbath)

G. K. Chesterton: “The Weight” (The Band)

Rudolf Bultmann: “Do You Believe in Magic?” (The Lovin’ Spoonful)

Paul Tillich: “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak” (Macy Gray)

Karl Barth: “Revelator” (Gillian Welch)

Anders Nygren: “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” (Tina Turner)

C. S. Lewis: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (The Tokens)

Reinhold Niebuhr: “Love Is War” (Bon Jovi)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash)

Mother Teresa: “Foxy Lady” (Jimi Hendrix)

Thomas Merton: “Crazy Baldhead” (Bob Marley)

Billy Graham: “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)

Herbert McCabe: “Whiskey on the Rocks” (AC/DC)

Jürgen Moltmann: “High Hopes” (Pink Floyd)

Pope Benedict XVI: “Shoes” (Shania Twain)

John Howard Yoder: “Give Peace a Chance” (John Lennon)

William Stringfellow: “The Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles)

Mary Daly: “She’s Always a Woman” (Billy Joel)

Camilo Torres Restrepo: “Rebel Rebel” (David Bowie)

Robert Jenson: “I’ve Got My Music” (Marvin Gaye)

Martin Luther King: “I Want to Break Free” (Queen)

John Shelby Spong: “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” (Sting)

Jerry Falwell (and Friends): “Hey, Hey! We’re the Monkees” (The Monkees)

James Cone: “Paint It Black” (Rolling Stones)

Colin Gunton: “Gone Too Soon” (Michael Jackson)

Stanley Hauerwas: “Rock Dat Shit” (Prodigy)

Alan Lewis: “Saturday Night Fever” (Bee Gees)

John Piper: “Gloria” (Van Morrison)

Wayne Grudem: “Just Like a Woman” (Bob Dylan)

Rowan Williams: “The Beard Song” (The Bandettes)

John Milbank: “Rave On” (Buddy Holly)

David Bentley Hart: “Beautiful” (Carole King)

Joel Osteen: “Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits)

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Apostles' Creed for very conservative/charismatic evangelicals

by Kim Fabricius (reposted from Connexions)

I believe in God the Father All-macho-mighty,
patriarch and misogynist, Steroidal Spirit,
intelligent-designer and micro-manager of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus, Jesus, sweet Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,
the friendly gh my personal Lord and Saviour,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary
(and anyone who questions the literal facticity of these events
on historical, biological, literary, canonical, or theological grounds, insert yourself after “Gandhi” below),
suffered excruciating, agonising, Gitmo-plus pain under Pontius Pilate
(see The Passion of the Christ – amazing film) –
though, not to be anti-Semitic (notwithstanding The Passion of the Christ),
the Jews were the real culprits –
was crucified, dead, and was buried;
he descended ad inferos (my pastor’s real smart and taught me the Latin)
[btw, here there is some manoeuvre for interpretation: Nadir of the Passion? Beginning of the Exaltation? I’ll cut you some slack. But my pastor says …],
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead –
and then, for all eternity, torture the crap out of anyone and everyone
who isn’t a born-again Christian and member of MY church
(gays and Muslims, in particular, not to mention Gandhi, are in for a real roasting).
Oh – I almost forgot [insert after the ad inferos line]: On the third day he rose again. Literally true, but not very important to us penal substitutionary folk.

[Charismatics may raise their arms. Non-charismatics should omit lines 2-4 and may omit “Allelulia!” in line one.]
I believe in the Holy Spirit – Alleluia! –
the second baptism, speaking in tongues, getting laid “slain”,
barking like a dog, handling rattlesnakes, growing another limb,
and all sorts of other miraculous stuff that looks great on telly;
the Chicago Statement,
the holy catholic Church (not to be confused with the Roman Whore of Babylon),
the communion of my gang,
the Sinner’s Prayer,
the resurrection of the body (Cosmic Cosmetic Surgery Ltd.),
and the life everlasting (watching the benighted buggers eternally writhe in agony).

Apostles' Creed for liberals

by Kim Fabricius (reposted from Connexions)

I believe in God the Father, Mother, Life-Force,
or whatever metaphor tickles your fancy,
fashioner of heaven and earth from the stuff generated by the Big Bang.

I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, a great guru, a good mate,

who was conceived as anyone is conceived,

born of Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilates,

was crucified, dead, and buried (or at least dumped on the city rubbish tip);

I repeat – he died.

On the third day – he was still dead, I’m afraid –
but his disciples had fond memories of him.

On the fortieth day – yep, still dead;

his memory entered into yet more hearts,

he is “seated” at the “right hand” of the whomever-or-whatever

(it doesn’t really matter – this is all dispensable archaic imagery),

and he won’t be coming again – think “Norwegian Blue” –

and if he were to come again, he’d be mega-tolerant.

I believe in good, good, good vibrations,

going to church,

goodness in everybody,

forgiving and forgetting,

I don’t know, Nirvana, some kind of memory bank, whatever,
but nothing somatic – yuk!

and the Big Crunch.

That’s a wrap.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Letter to the Virgin of Vladimir

Dear Lady,

All my life I have felt the lack of a sister. I grew up among boys, the second of three brothers, and whenever I look out at the world I see it through a brother's eyes. The world for me is masculine, a fraternal environment, a whole grand universe teeming with brothers.

It might have been different if I had ever had a sister. I might have known something then of the sororal side of things, the side that never shows itself to me. Imagine it, if even once in my life I had looked into another human face and said, My sister

St Francis must have grown up with brothers and sisters, for when he looked up at the sky he saw the hot sun burning like a brother, and the white moon gleaming like a sister.

But it is not so with me. I do not know what sisters are, and no matter where I look it is always brothers that I see. There are even women among my friends whom I have loved as brothers – whatever that means.

Which is why you mystify me, Lady. For there is nothing brotherly in you. In you I see creation, the whole perplexing mystery of things, looking back at me with the sad eyes of a woman.

Why are you always so sad, Lady? What is it your eyes see? If you told me, would I understand? Or would your language be lost on me? Would everything you tried to say be changed in my ears (the ears of a man among brothers)? Would your clearest, most careful explanations all sound like speaking in tongues to me? Is that why you have kept so resolutely silent all these years?

But though you only look and never say a word, I know you also listen. You listened so well that the vast unbounded Word was nurtured in your womb, as if you were the one place in the universe where God could really find a hearing. Even now in your sad eyes there is something like the purest listening, listening as an absolute quality, Listening-as-such.

So I light the candle to you: I watch you in the flickering dark: I let your ever wakeful eyes watch me: I strain to find a place with you in the cavern of your silence.

Sometimes (so intent, so palpable, is your listening) I almost have the courage to address you, to speak into the silence and tell you something only you would hear. In those moments if I could I would open my mouth and say to you, My sister. And right then (so I believe) the whole creation would turn its face to me and I would see all things – wind, stones, stars, sea – looking back with a sister's face, listening with a sister's eyes, and speaking with a sister's voice.

Until that day, Lady, pray for me, and for all my brothers –

Monday 15 July 2013

So, another baptism ...

A sermon by Kim Fabricius, preached on the occasion of the baptism of Kim’s granddaughter (14 July 2013)
So, another baptism… I opened Bethel’s Register of Baptisms and counted. For me this is baptism number 45. All but two the baptisms of infants or small children. I mention this because I am not obliged to preside at the baptisms of infants. The United Reformed Church is a church that includes the tradition of believer’s baptism, and we have a conscience clause that states that while each and every local church must make infant baptism available, the church’s minister, for reasons of theological conviction, may choose not to baptise infants.

In fact, for me it was a close run thing. Right up until I left Oxford in 1982, just before I was ordained, it was not clear to me that infant baptism is theologically justifiable. Karl and Katie were born in 1978. Karl was not baptised; Katie was – but I wasn’t her dad then! Biblically, it is notoriously difficult to justify infant baptism. There are a few brief references to the baptism of “households” in the book of Acts, which may have included infants; in any case, scholars are agreed that believer’s baptism was undoubtedly the norm in the early church for over a hundred years.

And then there is the shambles that so-called paedobaptist churches have made of baptism: baptisms on request, done because it’s what you do (or what your parents want you to do), understood as a “naming ceremony” or “spiritual inoculation”, the rite privatised and performed on a Sunday afternoon as a “family occasion”, and for some just the starter before the main course, “wetting the baby’s head” in the pub – and the parents and child will never be seen in church again.

And people in the church, committed members, weekly worshippers, let’s face it, don’t we ourselves (as it were) water-down the rite, calling it a “christening” as if what we are doing is not a “proper” baptism? Don’t we rather sentimentalise the sacrament, preoccupied as we are with how cute the baby looks, what she is wearing, and how good – or how naughty – she is? What would you say to someone who asked you to explain the meaning and purpose of baptism? “I’m not quite sure, but I know a man who does” – and give them the minister’s phone number?

Still, despite all the arguments against it, I finally came around to saying “Yes” to infant baptism. Why? Grace. And grace again. Grace, grace, grace. God’s grace triumphs over human indiscipline, ingratitude, indifference – and a whole lot worse.

Here’s the deal. God is love – the eternal love of Father, Son, and Spirit – a dynamic, dancing, daring love that bubbles up and overflows – God just cannot contain himself – and cascades out in creation. In his love God creates a cosmos, seeds it with galaxies, illuminates it with stars, sprinkles it with planets, and populates one of them with wonderful creatures and, eventually, human beings. So far, so good. But what do we do? We screw up, that’s what we do; from little goofs to major mayhem, we screw up. As far back as the historical and archaeological record take us, we screw up. And we know this – this human brokenness – deep inside and from personal experience, we know that what we will and what we do, me as I am and me as I should be, they are never consistently aligned.

We don’t only screw up, of course. We get some things right. We make love, write poetry, play music, cure diseases, and create the game of baseball. But we also invent Marmite, Twitter, call centres, and The X Factor. And from the trivialisation of everyday life we work our way up to the tragic and the terrible. We practice the darks arts of mendacity, fear, hatred, and war, and with a toxic combination of insatiable consumption and technological genius, we are now painting ourselves into the corner of ecological meltdown. We take this beautiful blue planet, colonise it, plunder it, turn it into a killing field, and prepare it for extinction. Welcome to our world, little one.

But – yes! – grace! God’s grace speaks of life, not death. God hates death, hates it. And because God loves us, loves us unconditionally – I mean really unconditionally, so that whatever we do cannot make God love us any more or love us any less (can whatever your child does make you love him/her any more or any less?) – God will not leave us in death. We will all die, of course. I’ve got another 20 years if I’m lucky, but no one gets out of here alive. One day the earth itself will become a burnt-out cinder. But because God is love, all the way down, because God in his love is never reactive, always proactive, God will not leave it at that. God has big plans for creation. His work-in-progress is a new creation. And nothing less than that is what we proclaim today in this child’s baptism.

Be absolutely clear: today is not just some family occasion or domestic do. Baptism is an act of incorporation into the church, but it is more than that too. It is nothing less than a re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ, which itself marks the end of the world as we know it, the world that ends in death, and initiates a new world, a new kind of life at which the Bible gestures with the phrase “eternal life”, which suggests a quality of human flourishing which is our heart’s deepest desire and wildest dream. In baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ himself. He dies, we die with him; he rises, we rise with him.

At this baptism – if we really had the eyes to see and the ears to hear – we would have heard mighty trumpets and angelic choirs and seen the sky roll up like a scroll. When the water rolled off her head, we would have clutched the pew in front of us, expecting the building to rock and roll. When the name of the Trinity was pronounced, we would have thought, “Here come the dead, rising from their graves, jumpin’ and hollerin’ and two-steppin’ into heaven!” When the kiss of peace was given, we would have seen all the world’s weapons of mass destruction melt into chocolate fudge brownie ice cream, the proud and the violent weep with shame, and the filthy rich throw bills from the balconies of their Caribbean villas and welcome the filthy poor to the mother of all barbecues. And when I cwtched this child up and down the aisle, we would have thought that every woman who has ever longed for motherhood would suddenly know that, miraculously, she was with child, and we would envision every child who has ever lived laughing and playing in the perfect park, and when the sun sets and it’s time to go home, they discover that their houses are made of gingerbread.*

So, another baptism – and another world.

At the end of the third book of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the children are sent back to their own world, Lucy protests:
“It isn’t Narnia, you know… It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are you – are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Shortly we will go back to the world of Westminster, Wall Street, and Walmart, bewitched by the deities of power, wealth, and fame. But for an hour this Sunday morning here at Bethel, you have been brought by the celebration of Christian baptism into the Narnia of the kingdom of God, where a whole new world has been disclosed to you, a world which, unbeknownst to most folk, happens to be the real world. May you take this holy experience with you, recall it often, use it to get your head straight and your heart right, that touched by grace and knowing God here a little, you may know him there, even more and ever better.

*Regular readers of F&T will note, in this paragraph, my shameless plagiarising from Ben’s wonderful Letter to a Chinese student, baptised on Easter Sunday.

Friday 12 July 2013

On books written for students: a polemic

In times past there were two kinds of books that scholars could write: books for other scholars and books for the general public. But now a third type of book has insinuated its way into our minds and hearts: books written for students. In the past several years it has become fashionable for authors to write books for students, and for publishers to publish them. It may even have become fashionable – who knows? – for students to read them. 

Just look at the endorsements on the back cover of the latest theology paperback: "an essential book for undergraduate courses" – "a landmark work that will be required reading for graduate courses in the field" – "now all new students will have a sure guide to the terrain!" – and so on.

This is a bad state of affairs – bad for writers, bad for publishers, bad most of all for students and the discipline – and I must raise my voice against it. 

Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one? It is the same with students who pay good money for the opportunity to study the Christian tradition, and end up squandering their time reading about the views of various theologians without actually getting to encounter a real theologian at close range.

Now introductory survey books are a fine thing. I have read, or started reading, some of them myself. But who are they for? The answer, which ought to be obvious, is that they are for the general public. Anyone interested in Shakespeare can pick up an accessible introduction to his plays: that is why such books are written. But a student who enrolls in a university course on Shakespeare should protest vehemently if they found they were expected to read the same introductory material. The reason you go to university is to study the thing itself – Shakespeare's plays – under the guidance of an expert in the field.

It is the same with theology. It is an excellent thing that an interested member of the public may learn about Christianity simply by reading a good scholarly survey. But if that person subsequently showed up at seminary or divinity school, they would (or should) be scandalised to discover that their teachers wanted them to spend their time reading introductory books. The teacher's job is to help students engage with the tradition for themselves. That's the difference between spending $10 on a paperback and spending $10,000 on an education. It's the difference between reading a book in the comfort of your own armchair and submitting yourself to the rigours of an academic curriculum.

In the discipline of theology, the primary sources are not only scriptural texts but also those texts and lives which have proved generative of subsequent traditions of reflection and debate. Thus Irenaeus and Origen and Augustine are primary sources; Aquinas and Calvin are primary sources; Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila are primary sources; the life of St Antony and the life of St Francis are primary sources.

There is a bizarre assumption that primary sources are for the experts while students need the easier, more accessible stuff of secondary literature. But the truth is exactly the reverse. Anybody can read Augustine's Confessions or Julian of Norwich's Revelations – but it takes an expert to appreciate a judicious scholarly survey. That is why publishers struggle to sell copies of their Introductions and Guides, while Augustine and Julian of Norwich have never gone out of print, and never will until the end of the world.

This is not to say that primary sources have to be old books. If you are studying liberation theology, then some of the works of Gutiérrez are primary sources, since these works have generated a tradition of reflection and debate. If you are studying feminist theology then the works of Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether are primary sources. If you are studying political theology then not only Augustine and Calvin but also Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr might be read as primary sources. But not an introductory survey of liberation theology or feminist theology or political theology.

Does this leave our publishers with nothing to publish? Our aspiring authors with nothing to write about? By no means! Those of us who write should commit ourselves to the two main types of books outlined above: books for other scholars and books for the general public. But please, for the love of God, let us leave our students out of it.

Now I know publishers need to market their books to a wide readership, and I know there is Money to be made from textbooks. But writing for undergraduates is not only bad for the long-term health of the discipline, it's also a mug's game as far as writers are concerned. To write well, it is necessary to have a certain audience in view together with an aspiration to move that audience in some way: perhaps to persuade your scholarly peers to see things differently, perhaps to engage the interest of non-experts, or whatever. If you are aspiring to write for a captive audience – a student readership, required by force to read your book – then the quality of your writing will tend to measure up to the size of your aspiration. That is to say, you will end up writing a boring and tedious book that nobody would ever read without being forced into it. How much better to enlarge our aspirations, to envisage a wider audience of non-captive readers who might just enjoy learning all this stuff – if only we can keep them turning the pages. That, in my opinion, is what publishers ought to be looking for and encouraging in their authors, alongside their primary (and always necessary) commitment to publishing books for the scholarly community.

But as far as publishing books for students is concerned, we ought to be concentrating on finding the best ways of putting the primary sources into their hands. And here is where our publishers could actually be doing a lot more. In fact, at a time when the market seems to be flooded with Guides to This and Introductions to That, there is a surprising scarcity of exactly the kinds of books students really need. There seem to me to be three categories of books required here:

1. First, the anthology. It is only stating the obvious to say that anthologies are one of the most convenient ways of putting primary sources into the hands of students. There are some excellent anthologies around, but not nearly as many as you'd think. Wiley-Blackwell has tended to corner the market, with books like Alister McGrath's Christian Theology Reader, David Ford's Modern Theologians Reader, Samuel Wells' Christian Ethics reader, and Gene Rogers' Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. There are some from other publishers, such as Oliver and Joan O'Donovan's political theology sourcebook (Eerdmans) and Bryan Stone's new Reader in Ecclesiology (Ashgate), but they are few and far between. Given the range, diversity, and complexity of the Christian tradition, you'd expect to find a lot more options here, even at the most basic introductory level. And Gene Rogers' Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings shows that the anthology doesn't have to be a dull chronological business, but can be a creative and provocative work in its own right, in which traditional texts are framed from the outset by contemporary questions and perspectives.

2. Second, the student edition. It was once common – and, in some humanities disciplines, still is – for publishers to produce special study editions of important works. Typically these include scholarly introductions, bibliographies for further reading, footnotes to help students understand the main text, and perhaps discussion questions at the end. Often headings and sub-headings are also introduced to help reveal the internal structure of the work. The Popular Patristics Series (SVS Press), Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press), and the Works of Saint Augustine (New City Press) are excellent examples of this kind of publishing; and of course Penguin Classics has long published a handful of important Christian texts in this style. (These series are all marketed to the general public, but they are also ideal as student editions.) Another notable example is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series by Fortress Press. But there is really not much else to speak of in theology. In some cases, simply inserting headings and sub-headings into a text would do wonders for the text's teachability. An obvious example: the whole of Barth's Church Dogmatics ought to be published with headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, etc, with a separate table of contents in which students can take in the complex structure of each volume, chapter, and paragraph. (I have an edition of Thomas Aquinas's Summa with a big fold-out table like this, where you can see the whole plan of the work all at once.) To anticipate the objections of purists: there is nothing unseemly about interpolating headings into classic works. We've been doing it for centuries – where do you think Bible chapters come from, or Shakespeare's five acts? It is a tried and true way of helping readers to comprehend, study, and discuss difficult books.

3. Third, the study guide. This is less important than the first two categories, but there is still a legitimate place for separately published guides to primary sources. The aim of such books is to help students to understand a work's background, its internal structure, perhaps its reception, and some of the main scholarly debates surrounding it. There should be a strong component of discussion questions. Most importantly, such books are of use only if they are extremely concise, and if they point students back constantly to the primary source. The danger of such study guides – just think of CliffsNotes and SparkNotes – is that they easily become another substitute for reading the work itself. The longer a study guide becomes, the greater the risk: so keep it short and simple. In the best case such guides can be a valuable stimulus to the students' own engagement with the text, and can help them to stay focused on the big questions raised by the text. This kind of publishing is all but nonexistent in theology, though I've seen a couple of examples recently, both by Wipf & Stock: Jason Byassee's guide to Augustine's Confessions, and Kenneth Oakes' companion to Barth's Romans.

A final word to teachers. When it comes to assigning texts for student reading, every book has an opportunity cost. No matter how wise, wide-ranging, and benevolent the latest Dummy's Guide to Christology might be, a student who spends nine hours reading it could have spent those same nine hours reading Athanasius, Cyril, Rosemary Ruether, or whoever else you believe has a generative importance in the tradition.

But shouldn't we be suspicious of the power dynamics involved in identifying any specific body of texts as authoritative? Yes! I don't mean to suggest that we should all try to agree on a fixed canon of theological texts. But I do think every teacher of the discipline is responsible to decide on a kind of functional canon of primary sources for the purposes of their curriculum. Once you've decided what the primary sources are, you should try to ensure that every course or subject involves a direct encounter with those sources.

It is disempowering if students only ever get to hear other people's views about the tradition, without ever having the opportunity to engage it directly for themselves. If you want to cultivate a highly critical stance towards "canonical" Christian sources, that's fine. But the best way to do it is to help your students to read those sources for themselves. No matter how much critically informed secondary literature your students might read, you'll still be giving them mediated access to the tradition instead of helping them to engage it head-on for themselves. An education in which everything is mediated through expert opinion is ultimately disempowering, and only reinstates the authority of the expert without cultivating genuine intellectual freedom or independence.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Apostles' Creed videos 8 and 9: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church... the resurrection of the body... Amen.

Here are the last two sermons on the Apostles' Creed – #8 is on the catholicity of the church, and #9 is on the resurrection of the body. Apologies for the shocking length of the last sermon – I guess I was enjoying this series so much that I didn't want it to end!

Anyway I was really grateful for the opportunity to preach all the way through the creed (thanks, Leichhardt!). If you're a minister and you've never done this before, I recommend it as a great way of helping a congregation to explore the heart of the Christian faith.


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