Sunday 29 September 2013

Ice cream as an index of spiritual life: a note on Pope Francis' favourite film

Pope Francis' interview last week attracted a storm of media commentary. Apparently what everyone found interesting were his remarks about homosexual relationships and so forth. But what intrigued me most was a deeper and more important doctrinal matter: I refer to the Pope's comments about movies. As it turns out, the Holy Father’s favourite film is not (as had previously been reported) Babette's Feast, but Fellini's 1954 film La Strada.

These two movies have one thing in common. Each one, in its own way, sees eating as an index of spiritual life. In Babette's Feast, a meal becomes the occasion of joy, grace, forgiveness, salvation. Just as Babette's ingredients are transformed into a work of art, so the hearts of those who sit at her table are transfigured as the meal unfolds. Their ability to respond to food and drink becomes an index of their ability to respond to one another – to forgive old grievances, acknowledge old loves, reconcile themselves to failed hopes, and, in sum, to see all life's painful contradictions embraced by an infinite mercy.

La Strada is also a story about grace. But it is about grace rejected. The film charts the moral and spiritual degradation of the strongman Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn. Zampano responds with cruelty to the childlike innocence of Gelsomina. He beats her and rapes her. He belittles her, not realising that she is his only chance of salvation. He steals from a convent in spite of her pleading. Right in front of her eyes he strikes a clown and kills him. After the killing, Gelsomina comes unravelled and for the first time Zampano seems to see her, to be moved by her. Perhaps he has even begun to love her? But he hardens his heart to the grace that is offered him in her brokenness. While she is sleeping by the roadside he rides away, leaving her abandoned in the bitter cold.

Many scenes in La Strada involve eating and drinking. Zampano's moral decline can be charted by the meals he eats – from his first meal with Gelsomina (where he wolfs down her cooking, then calls it "shit"); to the meal at the restaurant where he gets drunk and leaves with another woman; to the last climactic meal of a solitary ice cream cone. I call it the climactic meal though it is not an obviously important scene like the great meal in Babette's Feast. It all happens in a few seconds, so quickly you could miss it. But for me it is the most poignant scene in the film. I will even say I find it one of the most spiritually disturbing moments in all cinema.

Here is what happens.

It is some years after Zampano's abandonment of Gelsomina. We see him with other circus folk. With a few abrupt words he rejects a woman's company and walks down the promenade. He stops at an ice cream vendor and buys a lemon ice cream. Walking away, he eats it – in one mouthful. The ice cream is gone in one bite. Zampano is looking about and doesn't even seem to notice what he is eating. Then a moment later he stuffs the empty cone into his mouth and crunches it up. It is all as thoughtless and perfunctory as if he had been chewing his nails. Throughout most of the film our characters are seen eating scraps, gathering crumbs from the ground, scraping offensive-looking slop out of big tin bowls. But this is ice cream. Ice cream! The most luxurious food seen anywhere in the film. A perfect symbol of innocence, glory, the grace of childhood. After everything that has happened we can scarcely believe that Zampano is eating ice cream. 

He eats it. But he does not – because he cannot – enjoy it.

Most critics have interpreted the last scene of La Strada, where Zampano collapses weeping on the beach, as some kind of spiritual enlightenment, a promising sign of repentance and conversion. But they are wrong. Zampano is a man beyond redemption. The ice cream tells us so. All the joy has been wrung out of his life. He is so sour that for him even ice cream is not sweet. He is dead inside – dead to Gelsomina, dead to grace, dead (therefore) to the simple righteous pleasure of eating ice cream on a promenade in the sun.

Because eating is social, food and grace go together. That is what both films show. Babette's feast opens the hearts of her friends to one another (and so to God). But when Zampano hardens his heart to Gelsomina (and so to God), his heart becomes unable to respond even to ice cream. He eats with his mouth, but his heart tastes nothing. After such eating, what forgiveness?

Wednesday 25 September 2013

A recovering lopsided Christian

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his third-last before retirement)

During August, downsizing my files, preparing to move my study from downstairs to upstairs, amidst the passports, birth certificates, the memento mori of a will, and assorted detritus accumulated over the years, I discovered a large brown envelope labelled “Ordination”. In it are a couple of orders of services, a photograph of Angie (looking uncharacteristically mousy!) and me (looking characteristically whatever) flanked by the Moderator John Morgans and my Mansfield College chaplain Charles Brock, who preached “the charge”. And then, the real find, a copy of the charge itself. My eyes scanned the page and then settled on this particular passage: “Kim is a dreamer. He will lead you to the precincts of the heavenly temple, offer you the bread of heaven, and let you drink the clear, gold, red and very heady wine of paradise.”

And I thought, “Wow! Kim the Sketty mystic and visionary! Nice one, Charles!” But then, as I always tell you, no text without a context. And Charles’ context? “You could say,” Charles had been saying, “that what ordination training is all about is this – to put our right minds at stake so we can be beside ourselves for God [II Corinthians 5:13], but” – BUT! – “but also to make practical people out of dreamers.” And he concluded that this is what ministry is all about, keeping together these two dimensions, the visionary and the practical.

Charles didn’t actually say it – he was too kind – but his silence was deafening: I am not a practical person. Nor could ministerial training turn me into one – not even three years of it! No, I am not a practical person. And not just in the sense that – well, let’s just say what a relieved man-about-the-house I was when UK electrical gadgets starting arriving with the plugs attached! No, I mean that I am not a practical person even “professionally” (if you like), in the sense that, pastoral care excepted, I’m happier in the study than on the hoof, at the desk on my PC than at a meeting in the chair, better at thinking things out than getting things done (though I think I’ve gotten rather good at getting people who are good at getting things done get things done!). In temperament and as a personality type, I’m Reflection Man, not Action Man. That’s my psychology. But it’s also my confession. I am an excellent example of what you might call a “lopsided” Christian.

Can you relate to what I’m saying? Or is it simply conceit or presumption on my part to suggest that lop-sidedness is a chronic Christian malaise? I don’t think so. And to demonstrate, let me put this practical/impractical, action/reflection dichotomy in a different way: private/public, or even spiritual/political – prayer and contemplation on the one hand, the struggle for peace and justice on the other. And that’s just the problem: instead of one hand and the other hand, the hands should be clasped or even clapping. So you get Christians who are into “quiet days” and retreats, and you get Christians who are into rallies, marches, and sit-ins. But what happens all too often is that people who go on retreats do not allow the experience to release them for action, while people who are involved in the struggle for justice are not as sensitive as they might be to human sin and divine grace.

I get it. When I began university in 1966, I was pretty sure what I wanted: a good degree, a fetching wife, a successful career, two kids and a dog. But by my second year I started thinking, “Is that it?”, and by my third year I concluded, “No, it’s not. There’s got to be more.” But what? Thus began my search, reading literature and philosophy and religion, travelling east and west. Eventually I learned that the “what” is actually a “who”, in fact, a “You”: “Lord,” as St. Augustine wonderfully wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” But when you find God – or rather when God finds you – you don’t stop seeking God. On the contrary, it’s only then that the search gets really interesting. You seek, you find, you seek, you find – and if you stop seeking, you lose. And as the great rock band U2 put it in one of their most misunderstood songs, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Augustine’s longed-for rest comes only on the other side of eternity.

So far, so good. My mistake, however, was that I initially thought that this search was a private investigation, that faith is what you do with your solitude, very personal, altogether inner. During my final year at college I had become disillusioned with politics – the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, followed by the awful Nixon, the actor Reagan, the wars (secret and open), the stupidity, the lies, the “America the indispensable nation” guff. My Christian spirituality came by way of Buddhism and Zen, my prayer-life informed by techniques of meditation. Charles Brock was right: heavenly-minded, maybe, but of no earthly use for sure.

So what happened? The Bible is what happened. The Bible disturbed my peace – or rather the truce I negotiated with myself in bad faith. I had thought “spirituality” was done in the lotus position; the Bible taught me that it is done on two feet. I had thought that knowing God was some kind of religious experience; the Bible taught me that “knowing” God is not a “religious” experience at all.

Take our reading from Jeremiah (22:10-17). The prophet excoriates the king of Judah for not “knowing” the Lord. But what – is he saying that the Joahaz should be spending more time on his knees? No, he points him to his father Josiah as a role model. A heavenly-minded monarch then? No, much more down to earth: “He was always just.… He gave the poor a fair trial.… That is what it means to know the Lord.” In contrast, not knowing the Lord: “You can only see your selfish interests; you kill the innocent and violently oppress your people.”

In our reading from I John (2:3-11), same question: How can we be sure that we “know” God? And same answer: “Keep his commandments. If someone claims, ‘I know him well!’ but doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s obviously a liar.” And what are these commandments? John, following Jesus, reduces them to two: love God and love your neighbour, with the latter the test of the former. So John adds: if you say you love God but hate your neighbour, you’re of the night, you live in darkness. Again, knowing God isn’t something that goes on in your head, knowing God is something you do, knowing God is a practice.

“To make practical people out of dreamers” – that’s what Charles Brock said ministerial training is all about. I’d only add that it’s what training in discipleship as such is all about too: to bring dreaming and practice together, to balance that reflection/action lop-sidedness. So let me conclude with a bit more biography – but not (you’ll be glad to hear!) my own. Rather let me introduce you to two famous Christians, both of whom have been on my mind lately: Dag Hammarskjöld (a long-awaited biography of Hammarskjöld was published in the spring) and Thomas Merton (an excellent University lecture was given on Merton in May).

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat, so Action Man. Appointed 60 years ago, he was the Secretary-General of the UN during the critical Cold War fifties, when he “almost single-handedly shaped the vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we [still] struggle to realise [today]” (Rowan Williams). It was Hammarskjöld who famously wrote that “in our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” Yet while hardly a conventional Christian, he immersed himself in such classics of spirituality as The Imitation of Christ and the works of the German mystic Meister Eckhart. In his posthumously published journal called Markings, we see Hammarskjöld commenting on the foolishness and vanity of world leaders, but, above all, engaging in lonely soul-searching and relentless self-examination. Hammarskjöld is Action Man as Reflection Man.

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk, so Reflection Man. He spent most of his 24/7 in solitude and silence. Even occasional visits to the nearby town to buy provisions made him feel uncomfortable. It took a moment of revelation for Merton to see the intimate and inextricable connection between withdrawal and engagement. In March, 1958, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs.… It was like awakening from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in … the world of … supposed holiness.” True to his epiphany, Merton went on to campaign, religiously, for nuclear disarmament, racial equality, and inter-faith dialogue. Merton is Reflection Man as Action Man.

From these two great mentors – not to mention Jesus of Nazareth! – I draw the conclusion: reflection without action is empty, action without reflection is blind. From such wisdom, with Charles Brock’s heads-up and your help – and by God’s grace – maybe, just maybe, over these 31 years, I’ve grown from being a lopsided Christian to being a recovering lopsided Christian. You too?

Monday 23 September 2013

Sermon series: audio and video

I've added a separate page with links to various sermon series in audio and video (with thanks to Glen for creating some of the audio files). There's a link under the F&T banner, and I'll try to remember to update the page from time to time.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Leaving the church?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his fourth-last sermon before retirement)

On my retirement in early October, my church, Bethel United Reformed Church, Swansea (UK), is going to be joining the worshipping community at the local Methodist Church. Our two congregations have been growing more closely together for several years, and my hope is that, in due course, we may become a united church, a Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP). Bethel’s Church Meeting voted overwhelming for this venture of faith. But saying Yes is one thing, doing Yes quite another. And some are anxious – and others grumble. Hence this sermon, preached on September 15th.

Gregory Boyd is the Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The church has an evangelical ethos, and before the 2004 presidential election Boyd was under a lot of pressure to “shepherd his flock” towards “the right candidate”, that is, the Republican candidate. As a conscientious pastor, Boyd tried to address the “big issues” of the day. So, he writes, “In April of 2004, … I felt it necessary to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity.” In them, Boyd argued that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic idolatry.” Hey, this is the USA! What was Boyd thinking?!

Actually, “Some people literally wept with gratitude, saying that they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not ‘toeing the conservative party line’.” Others, however, howled with rage. “I felt as though I’d stuck a stick into a hornet’s nest,” said Boyd. And sure enough, the hornets massed, buzzed, stung – and then flew the nest. 20% of the congregation left in disgust. In round numbers, that’s a thousand people.

During the eighties, I myself preached on the embedded heresies of Thatcherism, and at least five miffed members left Bethel, maybe 15% of the congregation; thus in a small way I know how Gregory Boyd must have felt. So what’s the moral of his large and my little story? Don’t address controversial issues lest it divide the church? But then what kind of church is that? And what kind of Jesus? Do they actually match the church and the Jesus in the New Testament? And the answer is they do not. No way. I doubt you could find two successive chapters in the gospels where Jesus isn’t getting into trouble, conflict after conflict, with the religious leaders in Galilee or Jerusalem. Disputes continue in the early church, recorded in the book of Acts, though its author, Luke, does his best to airbrush out their ferocity; but it appears, gloves off, in the letters of the pugnacious Paul. Even the “God is love” letters of John were written to refute opponents, while the scathing letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation make “could do better” look like a gold star. So the question is not whether there were hostile reactions provoked by the life and teaching of Jesus, and acrimonious disagreements in the apostolic church, the only questions are what they were about and how they were negotiated.

One thing they were not about: personal offence. This has to be said because I’m afraid that personal offence is, alas, often the reason why people leave the church today: someone has done something to offend them. Here is material for the wry smile of a Barbara Pym novel, but none for serious consideration.

No, we’re talking substantive issues here, theological issues – including politics, money, and sex (and if you think these aren’t theological issues, you haven’t been paying attention) – they’re the ones that vexed the early church, and have vexed any serious-minded church in Christian history. The disputes Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees had to do, in general, with the way he interpreted the scriptures; in particular, with the way he was rather laid back about keeping the Sabbath and observing the rules of ritual purity. “For the gospels do not leave us in the slightest doubt that Jesus, judged by the standards of his religious environment, was in fact ‘liberal’” – “Soft on sin,” said his opponents – “and that it was … that very fact that sent him to the cross” (Ernst Käsemann). 

What was the reason for our Lord’s “loose” behaviour? People. Everything Jesus said and did was directed to human well-being, whether it was healing an illness, eating with an outcast, or embracing the poor. He taught and acted in this way because, intimate as he was with his Father, he believed it to be the will of God. All your piety and prayer and professions of faith don’t amount to a hill of beans if you don’t love neighbour, stranger, indeed enemy. And if anything in the letter of the Bible got in the way of human flourishing, Jesus reinterpreted it. He knew from experience that the devil himself could play proof-text.

This radical understanding of the way human beings should relate to each other continued to exercise the first Christians as they wrestled with the revolutionary implications of the life and teachings of Christ. For Jesus himself, radical welcome meant crossing religious and social boundaries and including previously excluded fellow-Jews in the community of Israel. The motley company of twelve disciples – symbolising the twelve tribes of Israel – reflected just how radical this inclusion would be, with the despised quisling tax collector Matthew at one extreme and the nationalist freedom-fighter Simon the Zealot at the other, the variety expanding as Jesus attracted all sorts of people including the sad, the mad, and the bad. The inclusion of non-Jews – Gentiles – was not really on the agenda, though contact with, and even praise for, a few heretical Samaritans and occupying Romans suggested that the circle of the accepted would become larger still.

Cue St. Paul. The entire mission of the apostle is based on the premise that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, that this ultimate dividing wall has been dynamited by the resurrection of Jesus, the first of a new kind of human being called “Christian”, whose Spirit will plant “churches”, where people will relate to each other in new ways, with indiscriminate kindness, infinite patience, and limitless forgiveness.

Paul had his hands full, that’s for sure. If you know your Old Testament, the scriptures of the early church, you know that it is adamant about maintaining the distinction between Jew and Gentile. So Paul’s use of the scriptures to prove his case was “creative” to say the least! But Paul pushed the envelope because now that Christ is Lord, the scriptures must bend to Jesus, not the other way around. The mother church in Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ brother James, looked on askance. Travelling evangelists visited the churches Paul had founded to combat his new-fangled teaching that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians. Congregations became battlegrounds. Splits occurred, cliques were formed, in-fighting raged. But for Paul the very gospel was at stake – the gospel of grace and freedom.

So there he stood. He could do no other. His teaching of God’s unconditional loving-kindness attracted some and repelled others. But leave the church? When attacked and isolated, Paul would not be forced out – though, as we heard, at the end of his most bitter letter, to the Galatians, he did plead “let no one give me any more trouble” (6:17) (or as we might translate, “Give me a break!”). Conversely, when church members felt cornered and bullied, whether they were liberal or conservative – it made no difference to Paul – he pleaded with them to stay.

So that thousand that left Woodland Hills Church in a huff because they didn’t agree with their pastor’s preaching, I’m quite sure Gregory Boyd thought, not “Good riddance!” – that would be an understandable but finally quite pagan response – but rather “What a terrible pity! These beloved do not seem to know the ABCs of being Christian, being church.” Because while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family – I mean the one into which you were born again by faith, compared to which, according to Paul, your nuclear family is but a biological imitation.

There is a lesson here for us all. There is certainly a lesson here for me. For I confess that there was a time when I seriously thought that I might have to leave the URC itself, with nowhere else to go: when we were all discussing same-sex relationships back in the nineties, and I had to consider what I would do if General Assembly took a hardline stance against them. Because I would have deemed such a position to be a grave moral and theological error. Could I remain in such an un-Jesus-like church? I decided I must, that I would have to stay and continue to argue the case. As it turned out, the URC decided no-decision, matters grave and gay referred back to local churches. As Bethel knows. As Church Meeting decided in May 2012 against the blessing of civil partnerships. I was gutted. I still am. But I’m still here. By the grace of God I’m still here.

And here we are. By the grace of God, here we are – together. And together – come hell or high water – come a new home – together, by the grace of God, let us remain.

Friday 13 September 2013

How does Jesus save? An alternative typology (against Gustaf Aulén)

Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor, first published in 1931, has influenced the way generations of students think about Christ's death. According to Aulén's typology, there are three main types of atonement theory: (1) the "classical" ransom theory, according to which God used Jesus as bait to rescue humanity from subjugation to the devil; (2) the "objective" satisfaction theory, according to which Jesus' death satisfies the demands of God's honour or justice; and (3) the "subjective" moral influence theory, according to which Jesus' obedient death has an exemplary moral power that can be imitated by others. 

I do not believe Aulén's typology is a reliable guide to the Christian tradition. Some comments on each of his three types: (1) His first category – intended to represent patristic thought – is a real muddle. The importance it gives to the role of the devil is very misleading. The image of Jesus as bait on a hook has no frequency or importance in patristic literature, and does not represent any typical understanding of Jesus' death. Aulén has mistaken an eccentricity for a type. (2) His second category, satisfaction, is the only one that strikes me as broadly reliable. (3) His third category, moral influence, is historically so marginal that it is quite misleading to include it at all. This category might have been interesting as a characterisation of patristic thought if it had been set against the backdrop of early Christian ideas about the spiritual power of imitation. But linking this category to Abelard makes it a mere triviality, of no real importance in the tradition. Again Aulén has made a type out of an eccentricity.

I've been teaching christology this semester (using mainly patristic sources), which has got me musing about alternative typologies of Christian views of salvation. So here's a suggested typology of six themes in patristic literature:

1. Christ the Second Adam. A major theme most powerfully developed by Irenaeus in his account of recapitulation. Christ restarts the human race from the beginning and sets it on a course towards life. Christ replaces Adam as the new life-giving head of the human family. (Main scriptural source: Romans 5.)

2. Christ the Sacrifice. This is an important background theme that becomes explicit mainly in liturgical texts. Melito of Sardis' On Pascha provides the most vivid elaboration of sacrificial imagery, artfully interwoven with a plethora of other Old Testament themes and images. (Main scriptural source: the Pentateuch and the Gospel of John.)

3. Christ the Teacher. A characteristic theme of the Alexandrian tradition. Christ is the divine pedagogue who, by a slow and patient process, leads human souls up into the presence of divine wisdom. In some accounts this process extends into the afterlife. Clement of Alexandria developed this theme explicitly. The same theme supplies the basic architecture of Origen's thought. Many accounts of deification are really just elaborations of the end result of this educational process: life is a school, and deification is the graduation prize. (Main scriptural source: the four Gospels.)

4. Christ the Brother. The adoption theme is prevalent in early Christian writing. Christ becomes our brother. Through him we become members of God's family. What he is by nature, we become by grace. It is often in this context that language of deification is used: Christ is God by nature, and as his brothers and sisters we become gods by grace. Adoption language is especially pervasive in Origen. By the fourth and fifth centuries the emphasis tends to fall more on deification, but the deification theme should still be understood as a subset of either the adoption theme or the education theme (#3 above). (Main scriptural source: Romans 8.)

5. Christ the Life-giver. One finds this theme everywhere in early Christian liturgical and theological texts. It is developed with an impressive systematic rigour in the work of Athanasius. The divine Logos had to become incarnate in order to become capable of dying; by entering into death, he absorbs death into the divine life, thus draining away death's power; and by rising again, he transforms corruptible human nature into a glorious incorruptible nature. Here Christ's death and resurrection are equally emphasised as the two poles of the saving event. (Main scriptural source: 1 Corinthians 15.)

6. Christ the Healer. My impression is that this theme recurs more than any other soteriological theme in patristic writing, even though it is seldom developed in much detail. Very frequently Christ is described as a physician who cures our illness. Often he is also described as medicine. Gregory of Nazianzus speaks of the incarnation as a healing of human nature. Augustine is particularly fond of the healing theme, and it is a constant refrain in his sermons. He speaks of Adam as infecting the human race with the disease of pride, and of Christ's humility as the medicine that cures us. (Main scriptural source: the four Gospels.)

Comments: (a) Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs. (b) Note the pronounced tendency to speak of salvation in corporate terms. Christ achieves salvation not for individuals but for human nature, for humanity as a whole. Only in the third theme (teaching) is there a more individual emphasis, but even here patristic authors believe that the whole of humanity is enrolled in Christ's school. Saints and martyrs are in the PhD program; the wicked are in kindergarten. (c) Only in the second category (sacrifice) is there any exclusive fixation on Christ's death as a saving event. Much more characteristic of early Christian writing is a broad vision of Christ's life, death, descent into hell, and resurrection as the one great drama of salvation. Even the sacrificial imagery that dominated early Christian interpretations of the passover (e.g. Melito's On Pascha) was qualified when Origen (in his own On Pascha) argued that the passover is not a type of Christ's sacrificial death, but a type of the whole movement whereby Christ's death, descent, and resurrection leads the human race in exodus from death to life. (d) While scholars like N. T. Wright routinely criticise orthodox christology as a flattening out of the Gospel witness, with no serious attention given to Jesus' earthly ministry, one can see above that two of these major soteriological themes (#3 and #6) were primarily adapted from the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry. Very prominent in all four Gospels is the portrayal of Jesus as Teacher and Healer. Through a spiritual interpretation of the Gospels, these features of Jesus' life and ministry became fundamental patterns for describing Christ's saving work.

Thursday 12 September 2013

A new kind of human being

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Ephesians 4:23-24: “The old you – get rid of it! Become a new you, living in a new way, God-shaped from the inside out, holy and true.” [My translation]

This morning I want to suggest two things. First, that Christians don’t exist so that there can be a church, rather the church exists so that there can be Christians. And second, that Christians exist not simply so that there can be Christians, rather they exist to be the prototype of a new humanity. This is what baptism and discipleship are all about, a fundamental parting of the ways, which the New Testament speaks about in terms of re-birth, of death and resurrection, of putting off the old way of life and putting on the new – in short of committing yourself to becoming a new kind of human being. Still around in conventional church life is the Victorian notion that God has nothing more distinctive to tell us than to behave ourselves, but I can assure you that God is much more imaginative and radical, has bigger plans than that. God’s agenda in Christ is, in C. S. Lewis’ words, not nice people but new people. And what I want to do now, very briefly, is to sketch for you what this new kind of human being might look like, in contrast to the kind of people formed by and fit for contemporary culture.

First, we live in a culture of fear. Being afraid has become an ever-inflating part of life in the 21st century. We not only live in fear, we think it is only sane to live in fear of – well, you name it: fear of abuse in the family, fear of strangers on the street, fear of unpredictable bio-threats and the hazards of new technologies, fear of ecological devastation and extra-terrestrial catastrophe, fear, of course, of terrorist attacks. Moral panics regularly grip the nation; uncertainty, stress, and feelings of helplessness have become psychologically crippling; and risk-management is now a huge business in a society that worships the idols of health and safety. In spite of the fact – the fact – that, compared to our own past and to the developing world, we in the West not only experience less pain and suffering, and indeed actually enjoy unprecedented levels of personal security, nevertheless we have become an angst-ridden people who approach the future with a sense of foreboding.

Fear diminishes our humanity. It makes us see everything as a problem rather than a challenge, and it highlights failure rather than success. It disempowers us as can-do agents and discourages heroic attitudes. It prompts us to blame others rather than to take responsibility for ourselves, turning us all into victims. And it attacks the very basis of faith, namely trust. Which is why, in the Bible, we often find the Lord’s words of disappointment, “O you of little faith!”, coupled with the Lord’s words of encouragement, “Do not be afraid!” Of course this does not mean that we should be heedless of real (rather than just perceived) threats, reckless in our behaviour, or negligent in our planning, but it does mean that we should assess and react to situations and events, not like the hysterical Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, but with calmness and discernment, with courage – “grace under pressure” – and, above all, with love, for faith shows its mettle in love, and love casts out all fear. Fearless, because faithful and loving – that is the new kind of human being that the Holy Spirit is shaping.

Second, we live in a culture of lies. In 2005, the journalist Peter Oborne wrote a book called The Rise of Political Lying. Of course, “All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time. But in recent years,” Oborne insists, “mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system.” Lying is no longer a matter for shame, only getting caught in a lie is a matter for shame. Lying is even spun as a virtue, on the nihilistic grounds that the end justifies the means. And as with the culture of fear, so with the culture of lies, the basic casualty is the erosion of public trust. Bush and Blair lied to us over Iraq. Is it surprising that we are now suspicious, rightly suspicious, of Obama and Cameron over Syria? Indeed lying has become so systemic that liars are no longer even aware when they lie, which is how they can lie with such sincerity, taken in as they are by their own acts.    

The new kind of human being the Spirit is shaping, however, will not be so gullible. We will be sceptical about the truthfulness of public discourse as it is controlled and disseminated by those in authority. We will be alert to voices suppressed and speaking from the margins. We will honour whistle-blowers. And although we will be modest enough to acknowledge that truth is not always easy to discover, and that it may look different depending on your perspective, nevertheless, once discovered, we will be bold to be in the face of power with it. For “the need of truth is more sacred than any other need” (Simone Weil). As for the truth about ourselves, we will acknowledge that “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” (Wittgenstein), that introspection alone will never reveal the real me, that self-discovery is an ongoing and arduous exploration, that I will never know who I really am until Judgement Day, so we will be humble as well as bold. And as for our knowledge of God, even more than self-knowledge it will always be under constant review. For in Rowan Williams’ graphic image, even our best theology is but “the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.” There will always be more of God.

Finally, we live in a culture of violence. Four numbers, two dates: 9/11 and 7/7: the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington, and then in London. Now you can add Boston. But what of our responses? Grief, which gives us a sense of belonging. Outrage, which makes us feel righteous – but then quickly hardens into what’s been called “militant goodness”. And then fear – fear again – the fear which drives us to over-react and behave irrationally, to suppress dissent, to cherry-pick human rights, to look for scapegoats, to divide people and whole communities into good and evil, and to look for revenge. And the really insidious, satanic thing about violence – the way it mesmerises us, draws us into its one-dimensional world-view, tempts us into thinking we will find meaning in it, and seduces us into believing the lie – lies again – that good-guy violence (and we are always the good-guys) can somehow be redemptive.

The new kind of human being the Spirit is shaping, however, will witness to the God of Jesus Christ who has nothing – nothing – to do with terror or vengeance. Rather we will participate in parables of peace, like the group of Jews and Catholics who went together on the Friday after 9/11 to a mosque on the south side of Chicago and encircled it, joining hands to protect those worshipping there from potential aggression. Indeed the only truly Christian response to events like 9/11 and 7/7 and the Boston bombing is not only to make the effort to learn about Islam and to engage in inter-faith dialogue, but also to defend Muslims and, more, befriend Muslims, and to see “them” as “us”.

This is the new kind of human being that we are, in Christ, called to be, the new kind of human being we are committed to become – courageous and loving, open and truthful, friendly and peaceful, in the teeth of a culture of fear, lies, and violence. It takes worship and prayer. It takes relentless discipline and patience. For it means reconfiguring our identities, relocating them, by moving from the fantasies of the narratives that shape us and inhabiting the world of the story of Jesus, the real world, the greatest story ever told. It’s a struggle – boy, is it a struggle! – and because it’s a struggle it takes encouragement and support. And that’s why God gives us a church, with Jesus as its focus and his Spirit as its force, so that we may help and strengthen each other in our work in progress of becoming Christ-like.

We will certainly fail, and fail again, that is to say, we will sin; but we will fail better the next time, and the time after that, that is to say, we will grow. And finally, by the grace of God, we will be remade in the image of Jesus Christ himself, the one who is the new human being. 

Thursday 5 September 2013

On not reading Karl Barth anymore: a white male's perspective

by Peter Kline (in response to Janice Rees’ post On Not Reading Barth)

I’d like to tell my own story about being a white male who once read and studied Karl Barth but does so no longer.

I first started reading Barth as an undergrad while doing a theology degree at Wheaton College. At that institution at the time, reading Barth was a way to hold on to some form of “evangelical” thought and piety while also pushing and dissolving some of the more suffocating boundaries that evangelical churches and institutions create. My experience of reading Barth then was exciting and liberating. He allowed me to begin to let go of many of my religious and intellectual anxieties. He introduced me to the beauty and poetry of theology.

But already then, at Wheaton, the pressures that have caused me to stop reading Barth were mounting. These pressures are difficult to speak about because they involve the intersection of institutional and social forces with my own developmental needs, anxieties and quirks as a young, white, privileged, pious, adolescent male. Sorting out completely this complex web of forces and attractions would be impossible. Suffice it to say, I have no interest in disavowing responsibility for my own feelings and actions in order to point fingers. We are responsible for our own anxieties and despair, even if what has led us to them are massive forces beyond our conscious knowledge and control.

At Wheaton, or at least in the circles within the Wheaton theology department I found myself in, Barth represented sophistication, savviness, critical distance from sentimental, moist-eyed evangelicalism, and the possibility of an alert and intellectually serious, yet heart-felt, evangelical theology. An aura of promise surrounded Barth; with him one could be an unembarrassed evangelical. And in those days at Wheaton, there was a promised land: Princeton Theological Seminary. There one could enjoy the pure milk and honey of the world’s finest Barth scholars, even if one still had to do occasional battle with some Canaanites, i.e., liberals.

Looking back, I now recognize both painfully and humorously that my decision to go to Princeton Seminary directly from Wheaton was driven by a desire to secure for myself and perform a particular identity: the white, male, Barthian-evangelical theologian. The pressures at Wheaton to pursue that identity were complicated and deep-seated. There was the peer pressure, the upperclassmen in my dorm who were themselves desiring and pursuing that identity. They seemed to know it all and have it all: the Barth-knowledge, the approval of professors, the girlfriends-soon-to-be-wives, the Princeton acceptance letters. I wanted all of that. There was the internal, self-pressure, the anxious need to grasp at an identity using the closest available language and resources. This self-pressure was compounded and given shape by my personal, spiritual-religious history of being the smart, good, Christian boy. There was the approval and acclamation of (white male) professors at Wheaton that I eventually received, one of whom had received his doctorate from Princeton writing on Barth under a big-name Barth scholar. These professors, who I didn’t want to disappoint, ushered me off to Princeton with a glow of pride and enthusiasm. I was white, I was male, I was smart, I had a thesis on Barth written, I had my Princeton acceptance letter, I had my fiancée, I had it all. I had my identity. It was all working for me.

And it continued to. I won’t go into all the details of my time at Princeton Seminary and how my study of Barth developed and deepened. I’ll just say that I did what I set out to do: I made it into the inner-circle of Barth studies. I became a prized student of the Princeton Barth scholars and developed informed and detailed opinions about all of the Barth debates that were circling around campus. I worked in the Barth Center. I went to the Barth conferences. It was all working for me. I became close to one professor in particular who believed in my abilities as a theologian and a reader of Barth and who wanted to see me go on and get a PhD. In a conversation about my future, this professor suggested that I do a ThM year at the University of Edinburgh with plans to return to Princeton to do a PhD. Eager to please a professor who had trained me and who I thought knew what was best for me, and eager to secure my future as a white-Barth-boy, I decided to do the year in Edinburgh. So my wife and I moved.

The nine months I spent in Edinburgh were some of the bleakest of my life thus far. About two months in, I started having crippling panic attacks and sunk into depression. Part of it was the move and the culture shock, undoubtedly. But at the heart of it was confronting the deep alienation from myself that had quietly grown over the past six years while constructing my evangelical-Barthian-theologian identity. I had emptied myself out into a discourse that was quickly becoming meaningless to me because I was realizing that I had no idea who I was in that discourse, even though I had become fluent in it. In Edinburgh, the meaninglessness irrupted into my life and undid me.

I had worked tirelessly to secure a privileged identity and make it into the inner circle where I thought I would find myself, and right as I was about to take the long-desired step into the inner sanctum (getting into Princeton’s PhD program), I found myself alone, on the outside, cold, angry and dejected, a stranger to myself. In therapy that year, the physical move to Scotland became for me a parable of emotional and spiritual exile. I began to realize that when you aim for the inner circle and do everything to please its gatekeepers and succeed at it, sooner or later you find out that the center is a lonely and meaningless abyss. It’s a bit like the shock of discovering that the deepest level of hell in Dante’s Inferno is frozen over, but only worse, because you thought you were traveling to paradise. That winter in Edinburgh was cold, the coldest one the city had seen in decades.

There is no inside. The inside is a lie. Once you get into the inside, you realize that it is another outside. The deeper in you press, the farther out you get thrown. Even boys have to work to get into the boys club, and once we are there we feel anxious and alone and forgotten, at least some of us do. Don’t buy the cockiness and self-assured talk. We are lonely. And we do theology harboring a despair so deep we can’t even recognize it as despair. 

I about gave up on the whole academic thing in Edinburgh. But for some reason, a reason I still struggle to see sometimes, I didn’t. I applied to PhD programs and got admitted to Princeton and Vanderbilt. It was part of my healing to say No to Princeton. But what exactly was I saying No to? It wasn’t until the Fall semester of my first year at Vanderbilt that I finally made a break with Barth in terms of my writing and research. The previous summer I had been invited to contribute to an online blog conference on Barth that would take place in October. The conversation that unfolded in response to my essay was painful for me. People I thought were my friends at Princeton treated me with a callousness and condescension that I found disgusting. But I realized that this was nothing new really, that I had been around this toxicity for years but hadn’t had the distance to see it. This is what talking about Barth sounded and felt like, a pious pissing contest. These are the kinds of conversations Barth’s discourse generates, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of them, even if I was good at them. After that essay, I decided not to write on Barth anymore, beyond what was required of me as a grad student. What I decided to walk away from was a whole Princeton-Barth culture that bred arrogance, pseudo-friendships, and a very limited set of theological possibilities.

So I don’t really read Barth anymore. I don’t reject everything or even a lot of what I learned while studying him for several years. All of it stays with me and informs me in various ways. But I consciously avoid the Barth industry. I am under no illusions that this is a subversive act on my part. I’m just practicing a bit of self-care. I’m also under no illusions that someone like me with my background can simply switch over from the Barth industry to the social-justice / critical-theory industry. I’ve learned at Vanderbilt that the latter is every bit as much an industry as the former with unspoken but obvious clubs and entrance requirements. Critical theory people can be every bit as self-protective.

I took a Queer Theory class here at Vanderbilt my second year here, and I loved it. But I was treated with suspicion by a fellow student. Aren’t you going to co-opt the discussion from the voices that should be having it and fold it into your white-boy systematic theology game? Are you just hunting for the latest trends and ideas? Are you queer enough to be talking about Queer Theory? I have deeply personal reasons for being interested in Queer Theory, reasons that no person should have to defend, so it was incredibly painful to be subjected to such suspicion. I don’t say this to paint myself as a victim. I am not a victim of anything. My story is not one of oppression or denied opportunities or a silenced voice. My story is one of the self-alienation that results from winning the game. But I have learned that there are lots of games in town, and the sooner I don’t care about winning any of them the better.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Lame-duck doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

John Donne,
When very young, had lots and lots of fun;
But wiser – chastened, broken –
He repented of his pokin’:
Old dog, new trick:
“Who ever loves, if he do not propose
The right true end of love, he’s one that goes
To sea for nothing but to make him sick.”
(Elegie XVIII, ll. 1-3)

Incompatibilities in Modern Theology Explained
Schleiermacher was a Scorpio, Barth was a Taurus.
Niebuhr was a Cancer, Yoder was a Capricorn.
Mary Daly was a Libra, Joseph Ratzinger is an Aries.
John Piper is a Sagittarius, Rowan Williams is a Gemini.
(On the other hand, I note that Noam Chomsky is a Sagittarius and Slavoj Žižek is an Aries – perfect partners!)

So, after the Bank of England sexism row – feminist pride overcoming chauvinist prejudice – from 2017 Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin as the face of the tenner.  So how about Emily Dickinson instead of Andrew Jackson on the double-sawbuck?  The belle of Amherst would make a nice change from Old Hickory the ethnic cleanser. 

So here in Britain we have had the royal birth.  Zzzz.  Next up, the royal rebirth, i.e., the baptism of little George.  Picture Prince William and Princess Kate. Question: “Dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce … the vain pomp and glory of the world …?” Answer: “Er …”

The “back page interview” in the Church Times always ends with the question, “With whom would you like to be locked in a church?”  Has no male ever answered Beyoncé or Cheryl Cole, no female Johnny Depp or Colin Firth?  What is the matter with these people?!

Remember: prayer is like writing a letter, not sending an email.

It goes without saying that a preacher must love her congregation.  But, more, she must make love to her congregation.  The sermon, after all, is the song of songs.

Why aren’t “worship songs” called hymns?  What are their writers hiding?

My Dear Wormwood,
There is one question, like no other, which will expose and confirm in your patient, and all our patients, the fantasies of their faith: “Where do you experience God?”  But when you hear the answers – e.g., sunsets and mountains, poetry and music, partners and friends – you must try to keep a straight face.  Though I confess that even I have a hard time not cracking up when they say “worship”.
Your affectionate uncle,

The main reason why macho complementarian pastors misappropriate the salient gender-role biblical texts is the proverbial male refusal to stop and ask for directions.

Here’s one for all you WWJD ethicists – the latest UK moral panic (the British love a moral panic): internet trolls.  Shun them?  Shame them?  Have them arrested, fined, imprisoned?  How about tell them a stinging story?  Nah, not retributive enough.

In practice, Semi-Pelagianism is the default position of Christianity.  Christians who aren’t Semi-Pelagians are as rare as black swans.

There are people who have never read Moby-Dick.  There are people who have started Moby-Dick and never finished it.  And there are people who have read Moby-Dick once.  The difference between these people is negligible.

How, in the twinkling of a generation, authentic, radical, prophetic words become clichés.  For example: “authentic”, “radical”, “prophetic”.

There are times when nothing makes any sense to me, times when I spiritually wince and flinch.  I am still learning to recognise these times as moments of grace.

As our culture of death is a culture in denial of death, one of the few unmissable signs of life that punctuates our social geography is the funeral procession, particularly the hearse.

Silence and solitude: give it a decade or two and they will follow sadness in being pathologised and medicalised.

Twitter is a wonderful spiritual discipline.  With its intrinsic immunity to vanity, self-promotion, shallowness, nastiness, patellar reflex, and OCD, it constitutes a training in virtue.  Someone should write a book: The Twitter Driven Church.

The difference between pretending and pretence is the difference between a disciple and a Pharisee.

It’s a sign of maturity to change your mind, a sign of insanity to change it too often.

“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” With one exception.

The British often say that Americans don’t do irony, which, I’m relieved to say, is demonstrably false (though British irony is more understated than American), because if you don’t get irony you don’t get – It.

I don’t have a spiritual adviser. Check that – I do: our cleaner.

I have a vision – of a church dinner commemorating my retirement (in October). On behalf of the congregation, the Church Secretary thanks me for 31 years of ministry. She then observes that it is just over 50 years since Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and knowing how much I admire the great American prophet, she declares that she can do no better than cite his crescendo of a conclusion to encapsulate the church’s feelings at this time: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

What shall I miss most when I retire from ministry?  Being pastorally and liturgically with the sad and the struggling, the sick and the suffering, the dying and the bereaved.  Because these spaces are bullshit-free zones, and because there, for faith, the tire hits the road and we discover whether we are travelling on Pirellis or budgets.


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