Monday 30 December 2013

The year in review: 2013 word cloud

Thursday 26 December 2013

Doodlings towards dotage

by Kim Fabricius

Richard Dawkins has said, “I never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition.” Imagine Nietzsche, Freud, Camus saying such a dumb thing! No wonder Dawkins is such a second-rate atheist: he has no imagination. As C. S. Lewis observed, a person “who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

Speaking of Lewis: he describes his conversion to Christ as coming via theism. My own experience was quite different: for me, Christ did not fulfil theism, he shattered it. If God were not Trinity, to hell with it: I’d be an atheist.

Staying with Lewis: theodicy – surely CS’ theological nadir. In The Problem of Pain, suffering as “God’s megaphone” – what is this but the instrumentalism of the “the outward bound school of theology” (D. Z. Phillips), cringingly inadequate in the face of horrendous evil. It might sell on The Oprah Show, but me (cf. Ivan K.), I want my studio ticket back. As for A Grief Observed, it’s a poignant reflection, but surely more “Well, er, yes” than “Ah-hah!” So POP has appeal for a can-do culture, and AGO has appeal for a death-denying culture – which, I think, adds to the explanation of why Lewis is so popular among Christians in the US.

… Finally, the devil took Jesus to Lisbon and Auschwitz, to Haiti and the World Trade Center, to Tōhoku and Sandy Hook, and said, “See all this devastation and death, bodies crushed and bloated, burned and blown away, thousands, millions, children. Why? You are the Son of God. Go on, give us a theodicy.” Jesus said to him – nothing whatsoever. He remained silent. Then the devil left him, and became a frequent visitor to philosophy and theology departments.

Almost everything that is wrong with American Christianity can be traced, metaphorically, to disobedience to the primal command of Genesis 12:1: “Leave your country.”

That purge in North Korea – some evangelical Christians struggling to remain in the Party will know that hunted feeling, that fear of inquisition from the panjandrums, and thus the need for constant self-surveillance, attention to the script, and carefulness in public speech.

Mark Twain famously quipped that he could remember anything – whether it happened or not. Rather like the authors of the biblical narrative – as pudd’nhead biblical literalists would do well to recognise.

So God gave Moses two tablets (Exodus 31:18). Kindle Fire, no doubt (Exodus 3:1ff.). Which the technologically challenged Moses proceeded to break. For his second set (Exodus 34:1), he went for Nook (Exodus 33:22). And Paul? He used an iPad (Romans 2:15a) – by Apple, of course (Romans 5:12ff.).

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”? No, love means never having to hear you’re sorry.

The New Monasticism shares three main marks with the traditional variety: (1) mutual accountability and the sharing of resources; (2) hospitality to the stranger; and (3) beer.

“Is the pope Catholic?” In some traditionalist Roman circles, and among ignorant right-wing pundits, this archetypal “yah-think?” is no longer a comical question. What next for this most personable, unconventional, and perhaps quite radical (i.e., faithful) pontiff? “Call me Frank”?

There are few moral absolutes, but torture is one of them. Hence my antipathy to “worship music”: liturgically, it’s abysmal; ethically, it’s excruciating. That’s why Sunday November 17th 2013 is a date that (for me) will live in infamy: led by a screeeeching soloist, we “exalted” the Lord eighteen times in one chorus. 18 times! In 1 chorus! Before we were in double figures I was thinking FFS! This wasn’t praise, it was hazing, and the worship leader should be prosecuted for a crime against humanity.

How would I describe George Herbert’s relationship with God? Complex, to be sure, but fundamentally (I think), the Lord was George’s best, sweet friend, one with whom he could play.

Jesus was sinless, okay, but that means he was perfectly obedient, not that he made no mistakes, let alone that he was successful. After all, he ended with a microchurch of two (and only one convert). And you and me – if there is any good in us, any growth in us, we owe it all to our failures.

Again: Did Jesus know about the boson before Higgs? Could he have run a marathon in under two hours, leaving Phidippides in the dust? Or delivered the Sermon on the Mount in German or Swahili? More somatically still, after a hard day’s healing, did our Lord stink? If your answers to the first three questions are Yes, and to the last question No, you get a Christology Fail (for Docetism).

I reckon that if Jesus had lived to be an uncle, he would have said that God is Saba, and that we must become like grandchildren to enter the kingdom of God.

People who say they wish they were young again were probably never young at all.

“I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you” (Revelation 3:20, The Message): that’s the Deliverance Man from Dominus Pizza.

The apotheosis of Nelson Mandela will only be complete when he has a flavour of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him: perhaps a vanilla-chocolate blend called “Half-and-Half Nelson”?

So Martin Bashir has resigned from MSNBC over comments he made about Sarah Palin. He called her an “idiot”, America’s “resident dunce”, which is to state the bleeding obvious. He also opined that someone should defecate in Mrs. Palin’s mouth, which suggests the phrase “carrying coals to Newcastle”. Yes, for such journalistic solecisms, Bashir did the right thing and fell on his pen.

In dubio pro reo, for Phil Robertson, the pogonophilic patriarch of Duck Dynasty, let us be gracious and shave him with Hanson’s Razor.

Tony (“Yo”) Blair – Catholic convert, peace envoy, peripatetic bloviator – called it “irreversible and irresistible”. Grace? No, free-market-driven globalisation, the Abominable Impoverisher. Thus does Blair “do” God – for a fee and a fête.

Your birth day may not determine your future, but your birth address – now that’s an entirely different matter.

The largest welfare state in the world is the US. It’s just that the welfare is corporate, not social: it’s the rich, not the poor, who get the benefits (e.g., of deregulation and tax-breaks) – and who commit massive, not two-bit fraud. (Cf. the rejoinder to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: Whose Wealth? Which Nations?)

“There is never enough for those who have nothing, but there is always enough for those who have everything” (Manfred Max-Neef). Maranatha! Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

A Christmas carol

Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading my ramblings at F&T this year! Here's a Christmas carol I wrote during this morning's sermon:

Though our lives have fallen down
And though our hearts are sad,
A child is born in Bethlehem
And he will make us glad.

Though the angry nations rage
In wars that never cease,
A little child in Bethlehem
Is called the prince of peace.

Though we're born to slavery
And though injustice reigns,
A baby born in Bethlehem
Will take away our chains.

Though we poison all the seas
And though the earth is scarred,
A little boy in Bethlehem
Will mend what we have marred.

Though we'd lost a paradise
Which nothing could restore,
Our God is born in Bethlehem
And him our hearts adore.

Monday 23 December 2013

The heart is bigger than the nose: Cyrano de Bergerac

The hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the great comic characters of the theatre. Cyrano is a brilliant poet, romantic, swordsman, and soldier, yet on account of his inordinately big nose he believes himself unworthy of love. Though he has loved the beautiful Roxane ever since the two of them played together as children, he cannot believe that he could ever win her. Because he despises his own face, he believes himself to be despicable. And where he lacks evidence of his despicableness, he supplies the evidence by creating enemies wherever he goes. And so it is that our beleaguered hero ends up helping Christian – a good-looking and goodhearted fellow, though rather brainless and romantically challenged – to woo Roxane.

The new Sport for Jove production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which opened last week at the Bella Vista Farm in Sydney, is a triumph of comedic entertainment. Damien Ryan is a director who knows how to use his actors. In his production, nothing is wasted. There is no milling about. Every character to appear onstage is vivid and fully present. The preposterous stage-performers in the first act, the orange girl, the vexatious wife of Ragueneau, the bloke who heckles Cyrano from the audience, the starving soldiers, the giggling nuns, the gaggle of poets. All of them, even the most minor roles, are wonderfully, exhilaratingly alive – and that is to say nothing of the larger roles like the appropriately hateful De Guiche, the affable Le Bret, the spellbinding Roxane, the hilariously inarticulate Christian. The pastry chef Ragueneau is so good that in a lesser production he might have stolen the show. But this is Cyrano’s show, and nobody steals the show from Cyrano de Bergerac.

It takes an uncommon actor to cover the full range of Cyrano’s character, but Yalin Ozucelik does it with all the deceptive ease of a trapeze artist or a juggler of knives. He is every inch a Cyrano. Passionate, intellectual, violent, magnanimous, sentimental, dashing, dejected – and, in all this, charismatic and utterly lovable. By the end of the last act he has made his mark on every other character to appear on the stage. He has commanded every corner of the stage. He has commanded the heart of every last picnicking playgoer too. On the opening night he even commanded the moon, which came out from behind the clouds exactly on cue, just as Cyrano pointed and cried, “Look, the moon!” And the audience was so spellbound by the world Damien Ryan had concocted that we took this bit of miraculous staging in our stride. Though we marvelled afterwards at this lunar coincidence, at the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world for the clouds and the moon to respond to their cue. I suppose if the moon itself had answered in rhyming couplets, it would still have been Cyrano who held our attention.

Damien Ryan knows how to use his actors, and he knows how to use the stage too. Not a bit of the big outdoor space at the Bella Vista Farm was wasted: the grand spectacle of Ragueneau’s bakery, the gripping swordplay, the balcony scene (a funny and touching parody of Romeo and Juliet). Indeed one stage was not big enough for Ryan’s vision, and in the fourth act the audience was marched off to an adjacent shed where we sat on rough-hewn wooden pews and witnessed the starving soldiers under siege.

Even the final (and, let's face it, ridiculously melodramatic) act was handled with perfect tact, so that this last spectacle seemed like merely another natural expression of Cyrano’s inexhaustible personality. If it is the power of great comedy to make us laugh and cry at the same time and for the same reason, then this was great comedy.

And it is the power of great theatre to open our hearts and to make us see differently and feel differently. On the way home my wife said, “By the end of it, I even loved his nose.” That monstrous appendage, so shocking and repulsive when it first wagged its way on to the stage, was, in the course of three hours, imperceptibly transfigured into something beautiful and good and true.

Just as the beauty of Cyrano is hidden from himself and from the woman he loves, so at first it is hidden from the audience, concealed as it is behind the man’s impetuous violence, his French bad manners, and his immensely ugly nose. But by the last act we have learned to see Cyrano correctly. We love him all the more for his magnificent deformity, and we would not trade that nose for any well-sculpted face under the moon. For the secret of Cyrano is that comedy is bigger than tragedy, and the heart is bigger than the nose.

Friday 20 December 2013

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! (a hymn by Kim)

by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Sussex / Laus Deo)

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!
God’s in heaven, all is well!
No, he’s not, and all’s not well here:
“God’s on earth, but earth is hell.”

Jolly families in December,
round the telly, watching Morse
that’s the image, but remember:
child abuse and bleak divorce.

Roof extension, central heating,
double glazing, sofa bed;
while the homeless, in the sleeting,
search for doorway, box, or shed.

British blood and UK passport,
porridge, Guinness, cawl, and tea –
this is our land, for our own sort:
no room for the refugee.

Bonus for the city slicker,
cuts in care for sick and old,
politicians strut and snicker:
same old story, newly told.

Tyrants – they will not enslave us;
terror – we will not condone;
but our formless fears deprave us:
now we hunt and kill with drones.

Jesus, we have come to greet you,
star-crossed child of midnight birth;
now we go to tell or tweet you:
“Earth is hell, but God’s on earth!”

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Two new publications

I feel very proud to have a chapter in Beverly Gaventa's excellent new edited volume, Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5-8. My chapter is on "A Tale of Two Gardens: Augustine's Narrative Interpretation of Romans 5." Even though I don't really identify anymore with the "apocalyptic" strand of contemporary theology, it was a great pleasure to be involved in this project on the theology of St Paul, and to explore one aspect of the world-shaping influence of Paul's thought.

My new book, Salvation in My Pocket: Fragments of Faith and Theology, has been released too. My daughter has been reading it and she says she really likes it – so there's an early unbiased review for you. Regular readers of this blog will recognise most of the material, though I also added about a dozen new pieces and some other humorous and heart-warming material. Plus, reader, you will find everything very artfully arranged, with each piece interacting – or at least exchanging friendly glances – with its neighbours. The book should be properly stocked soon at Amazon, and it's available now from Book Depository or direct from the publisher.

Speaking of books and such, I recently came across the most sensational two-sentence review of Christ the Stranger over at Goodreads – it's the second review on the page, written by an intelligent, charming, and obviously quite exceptional person named Jenna Smith. Thank you, Jenna, whoever you are! Out of all the reviews I've seen, this was my favourite.

Monday 16 December 2013

A note on writing: inspiration and asceticism

An odd thing about writing. Normally I begin to write after some particular idea has occurred to me in a moment of inspiration – let us call this idea x. So I sit down to write. I start building up a picture as a backdrop to x. Sometimes I begin with x and sometimes I end with it. It is either the theme which I am developing or the goal towards which I want to lead the reader. Ideally, readers will feel they are discovering x all by themselves. As I am writing, things start to develop in unexpected ways. A certain emphasis emerges which I hadn't anticipated. Certain things turn out to be dull when put to paper, so I find myself gravitating away from those things and towards other things, more solid and interesting.

Then when I have finished a draft I go back and edit it. I find the weak generic verbs and replace them with stronger ones. I delete most of the adjectives (adjectives being a particular weakness of mine). I look for places where I have used two nouns or two verbs instead of one (since nothing enfeebles a sentence more than indecision over nouns and verbs). I delete digressions, anything that might distract from the effect that I am trying to achieve.

Last of all – here is the odd thing – just when I think it is finished, I discover a glaring weakness that I had not noticed before. It is x. There it is, standing there like a bit of old scaffolding, once necessary but now quite useless. It draws attention to itself. It obscures the view. It does not belong here anymore. Here comes the hardest part. Here comes the decision that will determine whether the writing is any good or whether it is another mediocrity. Often for sentimental reasons I cannot bear to get rid of x. This is a spiritual failing and it produces failed writing. Sentimentalism can be useful at the start of the writing process, but ruthlessness is necessary at the end. It takes courage to delete poor x, beloved x. But I have to do it. I have to expunge it, every last trace of it, not only killing it but burying it too. Nobody but me should know that x ever existed. Only then is my job done.

This, as I understand it, is the writing process: inspiration plus asceticism. An inspired idea is not worth the paper it's written on unless it is subjected to a merciless asceticism.

Friday 13 December 2013

Forty things I don't like about Christianity

by Kim Fabricius (a sequel to Ben's forty things)

  1. Theism
  2. Chicago – famous for its wind and a Statement. But I repeat myself.
  3. ID (e.g., Marmite, the designated hitter, Michele Bachmann, The X Factor)
  4. Predestination – Double-or-Nothing (Calvin’s Wager)
  5. Penileal substitution
  6. Cumulonimbus eschatology
  7. Crusades, especially those without fatalities
  8. A “spiritual” resurrection (cf. Flannery O’Connor on the eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”)
  9. The exception to “neither bond nor free” (Galatians 3:28): chattel slavery
  10. (Pace Nietzsche) Pig theology (aka complementarianism)
  11. Supercessionism (Scylla) and CUFI (Charybdis)
  12. God hates fags – or rather God loves fags but hates fags who love fags
  13. God loves flags (well, Old Glory – the flag, not the God)
  14. The Health and Wealth Stealth Gospel
  15. The undeserving poor (fuck ’em)
  16. Just-wanna prayers, the Sinner’s Prayer, prayer breakfasts, prayer chains
  17. “Christian” used as an adjective (as in Christian music, counselling, dating, etc.)
  18. Mission statements, purpose-driven drivel, and other managerial bullshit
  19. Church billboards with corny or – even worse – “inspirational” messages
  20. Fish symbols on cars (all “Christian merchandise”, for that matter)
  21. Confession before absolution
  22. WowerPoint in worship
  23. Fenced Tables
  24. Communion grape juice, chalicules, wafers, a thousand pieces of bread for a congregation of twenty (cf. “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag)”)
  25. Family values (in distinction from Modern Family values)
  26. Whinging about “persecution” in the US and UK (“The Empire Strikes Back”)
  27. The Alpha Course (spag bol evangelism)
  28. God TV (unless it’s the only comedy on at the time)
  29. Tradition fundamentalism – “the dead faith of the living” (Jaroslav Pelikan)
  30. Pro-Life support for the death penalty
  31. Sports chaplains
  32. Purity (cf. Mark Twain: “To the pure, all things are impure”)
  33. Papal bull
  34. Protestant bulls (see #35)
  35. Mars Hell
  36. (Contra Ben’s #36) Kim Fabricius
  37. Worldviews
  38. Christian Realism (“That’s all very well, but what about Hitler?”)
  39. Theidiocies
  40. The logos asarkos (aka “The Myth of God Disincarnate”)

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Forty things I like about Christianity

  1. Very old books
  2. The calendar
  3. Getting buried when I die instead of burned or mutilated or set adrift or abandoned or eaten by birds
  4. Luke chapter 1
  5. The abolition of slavery
  6. Always believing (and occasionally even feeling) that I am forgiven and ultimately ok
  7. Going to church
  8. Staying home from church
  9. Christmas carols
  10. Europe
  11. C. S. Lewis
  12. Believing that my dog was created by God and hoping that he will go to heaven too
  13. Clerical vestments
  14. Novels
  15. Evensong, and the ability to see morning and evening as holy
  16. Cappadocian beards (like the one growing on Oliver Crisp)
  17. Russian icons
  18. Very old churches with old bones lovingly planted underneath
  19. Babette's Feast
  20. Gargoyles
  21. America
  22. The love of names, and the belief that names are holy
  23. The sign of the cross
  24. All the women's names, hundreds of them, derived from the Virgin Mary (Mara, Marie, Mariella, Marietta, Marilyn, Marita, Maryanne, Maura, Maurine, May, Mayra, Minnie, Moira, Morag, Muriel…)
  25. Civil law
  26. Italian cooking
  27. Having a lot of other people (billions of them) who will always think of me, no matter what, as a brother
  28. Hospitals
  29. The resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come
  30. Codex Sanaiticus
  31. Being able to read Milton and T. S. Eliot and understand what they are talking about
  32. Old people
  33. People who speak in tongues
  34. The nomina sacra (see #22)
  35. Holy communion (even when I don't deserve it)
  36. Kim Fabricius
  37. People who argue about very old books (see #1)
  38. The habit of seeing normal things, bread and wine and water, as the best and holiest things
  39. Learning how to pray
  40. The meaning of words like grace and love and steadfast love and lovingkindness and mercy and the multitude of thy tender mercies.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Postcards from the human race: Parramatta

You can find human beings anywhere, but you will never find a more plentiful variety than on a weekday afternoon in the Church Street Mall in Parramatta, New South Wales.

Here you will see women more beautiful and women more frightening and appalling than anywhere else in the world. You will see women with withered faces and hungry alert eyes and limbs as thin as sticks, combing the pavement for cigarette butts. You will see the Lebanese woman in tight jeans and a peach silk blouse and peach silk headscarf, so lovely you could cry, and the tall black African woman as glorious as a queen with her gorgeous dignity and her gorgeous red and orange clothes and the baby strapped to her waist and the red umbrella that she holds for shade above the baby, and you will see women, former convicts, with tight faces and muscly tattooed arms, and the hunchbacked woman who shuffles past clutching many shopping bags and a little boy, and the woman with the bicycle helmet and the bicycle and the little dog.

You will see disfiguring ailments, faces twisted out of all proportion, bodies barely functioning, legs hardly able to hobble from one end of the mall to the other and back again. You will see young men's bodies covered with expensive colour tattoos and older men's bodies covered with artless prison tattoos, and men of no determinate age with tattoos stretching menacingly up one side of the neck. You will see the most extensive catalogue of facial hair available anywhere in the world: the thin man whose body is bald all over except for the three-foot braided goatee; the round man with the clean-shaven face and the huge neck beard like Robert Browning; the little man with the thick grey moustache that continues in a straight line from the top lip to the tops of his ears and then encircles the back of his bald head, a perfect round belt of hair. If you stare too long, these beards will return one night in your dreams and leave you frightened to go back to sleep again.

You will see the kind fat grocer perched on a wooden stool beside tables laden with ripe fruit. He will call to you as you pass by, "Bananas, two for three dollars. Tomatoes, fresh tomatoes. Mangos, three for five dollars. All fruit grown by wogs. Give the wog a chance, ladies and gentlemen, give him a chance!" You will stop and laugh because others have stopped to laugh too and to buy fruit from the kind fat grocer and his smiling skinny sons.

You will see the tightly knit community of the homeless, the high, and the unhinged congregating around the park benches in front of the cathedral. You will see the heroin dealers with their new sports clothes and their new white shoes and their thick new jewellery, and the edgy characters milling about to score heroin, and the drawn faces hollowed out by heroin, and you will see their girlfriends, not all of whom are prostitutes, scurrying away on errands with plastic shopping bags.

You will see a man resting on his haunches with his head in his hands on the pavement beside the lamp post. Very suddenly he lunges to his feet and, with the precision of a professional boxer, delivers a short sharp blow to the unsuspecting lamp post. Then he goes over beside the green rubbish bin and pulls down his pants and pulls them up again and goes back to the lamp post and squats on his haunches with his head in his hands. He is very sad and agitated because the heroin dealers have not come back yet. Poor fellow, you would give him heroin yourself if you could, just to ease his troubled mind.

You will see a man and a woman, both dressed in matching sports pants with the white stripe down the side, screaming at each other. He strikes her. But it's ok, the police are here, they are never far away, they are always visible in the background in their fluorescent yellow vests. They come over and the woman, who loves her man (where would she be without him?), turns on the police. The police stay until she has calmed down and then they argue some more and a few others wander over and argue too, and then the police have gone because there are other things to attend to, and there are more important things transpiring in the Church Street Mall than a woman screaming at the man she loves and being hit by him.

You will see the man with dreadlocks and a face that looks like Jesus crouching in his dirty blankets on the concrete step, drinking coffee between spasms of maniacal laughter. You will see the big Lebanese man whose brain is addled and who, though he can no longer walk straight or talk in sentences, has never lost his native swagger. And you will see his wife or lover who keeps chasing him away but sometimes touches him fondly when he returns because she cares for him and has always felt safe and good with a man who swaggers like that. Nowhere else in the world will you ever see men with more swagger, or women more ruthlessly loyal to their swaggering men.

You will see lawyers and accountants and local councillors in pin-striped shirts and grey suits, and you will see the accountant in the cheap suit with bits of grass and leaves stuck in his hair, looking as if he could use another drink, and you will see men in borrowed suits on their way to court, one of them a huge brick wall of a man in a black suit with his luxuriant long hair curled neatly and tied neatly back and dyed hot pink, because it's always good to look your best in court.

You will see a woman in old pyjamas, very poor, reclining under the tree and digging deep into her pocket for loose change when another woman, older, even poorer, comes up to her and receives from her a whole handful of gold and silver coins, all that she had, as unthinkingly generous as the woman with the two coins in the Gospel. 

Everything that Dostoevsky knew, this pavement knows too and would tell you if it could speak. Everything Shakespeare wrote about, the gigantic comedy and tragedy of the human race, the ruined kings, the murderous villains, the lovers driven mad with love or jealousy, the fools and tricksters and the lovely fairies too, it is all here, all passing by in front of you if you will only stop and watch for twenty minutes. In a theatre a few blocks from here I once saw a production of Hamlet and it all seemed right, it seemed believable to see such portentous events unfolding here in Parramatta. Swaggering Hamlet and swaggering Claudius and heartless Gertrude and mad Ophelia and dead Ophelia and the toothless whimsical gravedigger, it all had a certain obviousness about it, as if they all were natives of this place, as if the day-to-day affairs of the Church Street Mall had climbed on to the stage.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Near and distant conferences and events

  • Tomorrow night at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, I'll be giving a lecture on "George Herbert's God" following a service to mark the feast of Nicholas Ferrar
  • Next week in Melbourne there'll be a colloquium with Sarah Coakley. I'll be giving a paper there on "Exegetical mysticism: scripture and the spiritual senses" (mainly on Origen).
  • There's a call for papers for a theology panel at next year's Religion in California conference at Berkeley, with a focus on the California body
  • Princeton has a conference coming up on the doctrine of creation in patristic tradition
  • I'll be involved in next year's online Ecclesia and Ethics conference; they have a call for papers on the theme "Gospel Community and Virtual Existence"
  • It looks like a good lineup for the second Los Angeles Theology Conference on the doctrine of the Trinity. Plus you get to be in California.
  • Wheaton's theology conference next year is on the Spirit of God and renewal
  • And some church events coming up in Australia: a big youth festival, Yurora NCYC, is coming soon to Sydney (I'll be giving some talks there too); and the Uniting Church has a women's conference coming up next year with Nadia Bolz-Weber of the aptly named House for All Sinners and Saints in Colorado.
If you'd like me to add a link to any other upcoming events, just leave the details in a comment.

Sunday 1 December 2013

The man who told stories

There was once a man who lived at the bottom of a hole, and every day he was forced to tell stories. He lived in the hole because of the monkeys who, thirty years before, had plundered his village and taken him captive and dragged him to their city and thrown him into a hole in the ground. Each night, just after sundown, the monkeys would gather around the hole for their bedtime story. If the man was too slow to begin the story the monkeys would kick stones and dirt into the hole until their prisoner stammered out his frightened "Once upon a time." When the story was finished, the monkeys would throw down some bananas and some bottled water, and the man would eat and drink greedily, for this was his only meal each day, and he lived in a perpetual state of gnawing hunger.

As he told his stories, the man had to proceed with the greatest caution and delicacy, not only because he would be refused food if the story was not good enough, but also because an unsatisfying story could make the monkeys react in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

There were times in the middle of a story when the monkeys would start screeching and hissing and scratching each another's eyes and throwing rocks into the hole, and the man would have to do some very quick thinking to alter the plot or introduce a new character or bring the villain to a grisly end. When a story ended happily the monkeys would grow very hushed and grateful and contented. When a story ended sadly but beautifully, the monkeys would shake their heads in silent wonderment and creep quietly back to their houses for the night, and the man would get to eat his bananas in peace and quiet. Sometimes when he was narrating a story of particular sadness and beauty, from where he sat at the bottom of the hole he would hear the monkeys crying and blowing their noses.

Once, when a story had ended badly – a character they loved had died – the monkeys rioted and began tearing their clothes and breaking glass and setting their houses on fire. Their entire civilisation might have been threatened had not the man called the monkeys back and told them a sequel in which their beloved character – a purple starfish named Rick who was a private detective with a hardened outlook on life, a history of alcoholism, and a weakness for the wrong kinds of women – turned out to be not dead after all but only unconscious, and he escaped and was saved and the villains were apprehended and everything ended well. Rick the starfish detective was to appear in over nine hundred other stories, until the man in the bottom of the hole could not bear it anymore; even thinking of Rick made him nauseous. So he had created a new character named Sam. Sam was very different from Rick. He was a clam, not a starfish, and he solved murder cases using nothing but lucid reasoning and his own uncanny powers of observation. Sam the clam drank bourbon whisky and had a gritty outlook on life and most of his stories involved his seduction by a mysterious femme fatale. For six or seven years the man in the hole told stories about Sam and the monkeys were very pleased and after a while they forgot all about Rick the starfish, which was a great relief to the man in the hole.

But after thirty years like this, there came a day when the man found he could tell no more stories. No matter how much the monkeys screamed and bared their teeth at him, he just could not get the words out. Perhaps it was the inadequate living conditions that had given him writer's block; perhaps it was the bland diet. Whatever the explanation, one wintry night when the moon was high the man collapsed on to his knees and explained to his captors that he could not think of a story. "I'm sorry," he told them helplessly. "Tonight there will be no story." As he spoke the fateful words, the moon went behind a cloud and the sky went black and the hole grew darker and colder than ever. The man covered his ears as the monkeys shrieked at him. He covered his face with his hands as the monkeys kicked dirt and stones and sticks into the hole.

Then the monkeys began to tear at one another with their fingernails, scratching and biting one another, consumed by a blind animal rage. For a moment they forgot all about their prisoner in the hole. And a moment was all it took. For at that moment the man, wearied by the monkeys' violent and uncharitable ways, stood up straight and peered out of the hole. The hole was about as deep as his shoulders, and with only a little difficulty he found that he could push his elbows out of the hole and heave himself up and climb out. He dusted himself off. He had never thought to climb out before, because like most storytellers he was not a practical person but a daydreamer who, for thirty years, had spent all his time sitting on the ground planning his next story. But it felt good now to be standing in the open air. He took a deep breath and walked off down the street. By now the monkeys were rioting. The man stopped for a second to watch a group of them set a police car on fire. They were so preoccupied with their angry nihilism that they didn't even noticed as their prisoner left the city and walked off into the woods.

The man walked half the night through the woods until he came to the edge of a great lake. He was given passage across the lake by a ferryman who smoked a pipe and whistled through his teeth and had the name Mavis tattooed across his arm. On the other side, the man went down a little trail and found the road, just as he'd remembered it, and from there he managed to hitch a ride back to the village where he had lived all those years ago, before he had ever been taken captive by the wicked monkeys.

The sun was coming up as he walked into the village. Everywhere he looked he saw people and places that he remembered. But everyone looked at him strangely, no one recognised him, for in the time he had been gone he had grown old, his face had grown wrinkled with care, his eyes were pale, his beard white as snow. Taking him for one of the hobos who used to wander from town to town in those days, a kindhearted woman ushered him into her house and sat him down by the fire. All the children gathered round and stared at him expectantly.

"Are you hungry?" said the woman. "You can join us for porridge if you like." The children watched to see what he would say.

The man, who had eaten nothing but bananas for thirty years, said with genuine feeling, "Porridge would be wonderful." And he did his best to smile at the watching children, though they retreated in fear when he bared his yellow teeth at them.

While the woman was ladling steaming porridge into wooden bowls she gave the stranger a sideways look and clucked sympathetically and said, "Poor soul. You look as if you've got a story to tell."

"No," the man pleaded. "I don't." And he covered his face with his hands and wept.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

AAR/SBL in Baltimore: a report in rhyme

At SBL and AAR,
Scholars come from near and far
To drink together at the bar.

At AAR and SBL,
Everyone is smart as hell
(Their papers can be hell as well).

All the scholars stop and stare
At Oliver Crisp and his facial hair.

If you have a PhD
And like to be abused,
You can pay an extra fee
To go to interviews.

Thousands of new books on display,
But which are worth reading? Who can say?

They greet you with kind words and friendly looks.
But when your back is turned they pounce –
And force you to write books.

Two things are exceedingly long
(I won't say exceedingly weird):
The first is a book by Nicholas Tom,
The second is Oliver's beard.

I went to the afternoon panel,
It sounded excellent too;
But I fled for my life when I heard someone mention
The names of Zizek and Badiou.

My friend had drunk too many drinks
At the Wipf & Stock reception.
He kissed my cheek and said, "I'm straight –
But for you I'd make an exception."

New book
When you see them buying and selling your book,
You suddenly feel exposed:
Like one of those dreams where you're preaching a sermon
But haven't put on any clothes.

By Sunday I was feeling blue.
I missed the ones I left at home:
My dog, my cat –
By Tuesday I had missed my family too.

Saturday 23 November 2013

The girl and George Herbert (version 2.0)

Yesterday I related this anecdote about my visit to Bemerton and a cafe in Salisbury. When I wrote the post I found the ending quite lame, but didn't know how to improve it. But thanks to a wonderful comment by Alan Jacobs, I've now been able to rewrite the post, and to give it a proper ending. It is a pleasure – a very great pleasure – to be wrong about something when it means you get to be corrected by a person like Alan Jacobs. So here's the new version.

Today I walked to the church in Bemerton where George Herbert had been a priest. I sat for an hour alone in the tiny church, reading from a book of Herbert's poems, kneeling to pray, carrying on a private little conversation with the bones of my poet which lie resting somewhere under the altar. I contemplated his poem "The Call," and for the briefest second his description of Christ as "such a feast as mends in length" lit up my mind like lightning, so that I seemed to have glimpsed the naked essential truth of things (though I could not tell you afterwards exactly what it was).

The walk back to Salisbury takes about an hour, and even though it was quite wet and cold I made my way along the muddy path with a light heart, feeling very glad and free.

At an upstairs cafe in a restored medieval building in Salisbury I was brought coffee by a girl with a face like Helen of Troy. When she put down the coffee on the table beside my hand, I thought: men would launch ships, they would send their sons to war, for a face like this. She was turning to leave so I asked her for a glass of water, not because I needed water but because I needed her to come back and stand a moment longer near me, outlined against the wide window and the grey sky. I watched her turn to walk away and I thought, my God, even her knees are perfect. I wondered what her knees would look like without the black stockings. And such small feet! I imagined her gently kicking off the small black shoes, one by one, and walking barefoot across the floor.

I tasted the coffee and it was very good. She came back and put a glass of water down on the table. Her hair was longer than I had remembered and her eyes were darker than I had remembered. Because the table was so low, she had to bend down to place the glass in front of me. I averted my eyes. I looked at the light that rippled on the surface of the water in the glass.

I wished I were a stage director. I would give her the part of Cleopatra and find an Antony to make speeches to her. I wished I were an artist. I would draw her, every inch of her, in blackest charcoal. I wanted to capture the light in her dark eyes. I wanted to bless her, salute her, memorialise her, build an altar to her. I wanted to do so many things.

The glass of water came to rest on the table in front of me. Her fingers slid away from the wet glass. Her small feet padded away on the wooden floor.

I do not mean to make you blush, reader. I record these details purely for the sake of contrast. For am I not the same identical person who, one hour before, had sat in the church at Bemerton thinking the most pious thoughts I ever had in all my life? That entire hour of prayer and contemplation; my proximity to the bones of a saint whom I have loved my whole life; the feeling of God's will wrapping all around me like a cloak – what happened to all that? An hour ago my heart had gone to Bemerton. Now with all my heart – the same heart! – I was contemplating other things.

It makes you realise that pious thoughts and religious feelings are a fine thing as far as they go – but they don't go very far. Less than an hour, as it turns out.

Or was the girl's effect on me more closely related to the effect that Bemerton had had on me an hour before? Did my soul wake up too much at Bemerton, so that instead of stumbling drowsily through life as usual I was, in that cafe, staring reality in the face? Is that why the first human being who crossed my path seemed so unbearably bright and piercing? Was I tempted to worship her for the simple reason that I saw her for what she really is: the image of God in black stockings? Was it merely – merely! – the radiance of a real human being that pierced my heart and knocked my soul off balance?

Was all this, in short, a spiritual side-effect of praying in the little church in Bemerton?

Perhaps it is a mercy that we normally perceive each other so dimly, like shadows gliding by in a dream. Perhaps God dulls our senses out of kindness, knowing that if we saw each other for what we really are, we would spend every day half-blinded by the light reflected in every face. We would be paralysed by glory. We would never get anything done. Our hearts would be so ravished by the sight of even the most unexceptional human beings that we would be constantly struggling against (or yielding to) the temptation to fall at their feet and worship them.

We see one another through a glass darkly: thank God for that! But after going to Bemerton and kneeling in a place where prayer has been valid, I came back out into the light of day and accidentally saw another human being face to face. And now I will have to live somehow with the consequences.

Thursday 21 November 2013

On the limits of thinking pious thoughts

Today I walked to the church in Bemerton where George Herbert had been a priest. I sat for an hour alone in the tiny church, reading from a book of Herbert's poems, kneeling to pray, carrying on a private little conversation with the bones of my poet which lie resting somewhere under the altar. I contemplated his poem "The Call," and for the briefest second his description of Christ as "such a feast as mends in length" lit up my mind like lightning, so that all at once I seemed to have glimpsed the bare essential truth of things (though I could not tell you afterwards exactly what it was).

The walk back to Salisbury takes about an hour, and even though it was quite wet and cold I made my way along the muddy path with a light heart, feeling very glad and free.

At an upstairs cafe in a restored medieval building in Salisbury I was brought coffee by a girl with a face like Helen of Troy. When she put down the coffee on the table beside my hand, I thought: men would launch ships, they would send their sons to war, for a face like this. She was turning to leave so I asked her for a glass of water, not because I needed water but because I needed her to come back and stand a moment longer near me, outlined against the wide window and the grey sky. I watched her turn to walk away and I thought, my God, even her knees are perfect. I wondered what her knees would look like without the black stockings. And such small feet! I imagined her gently kicking off the small black shoes, one by one, and walking barefoot across the floor.

I tasted the coffee and it was very good. She came back and put a glass of water down on the table. Her hair was longer than I had remembered and her eyes were darker than I had remembered. Because the table was so low, she had to bend down to place the glass in front of me. I averted my eyes. I looked at the light that rippled on the surface of the water in the glass.

I wished I were a stage director. I would give her the part of Cleopatra and find an Antony to make long speeches to her. I wished I were an artist. I would draw her, every inch of her, in blackest charcoal. I wanted to capture the light in her dark eyes. I wanted to bless her, salute her, memorialise her, build an altar to her. I wanted to do so many things.

The glass of water came to rest on the table in front of me. Her fingers slid away from the wet glass. Her small feet padded away on the wooden floor.

I do not mean to make you blush, reader. I record these details purely for the sake of contrast. For am I not the same identical person who, one hour before, had sat in the church at Bemerton thinking the most pious thoughts I have ever had in all my life? That entire hour of prayer and contemplation; my proximity to the bones of a saint whom I have loved my whole life; the feeling of God's will encompassing me like a cloak – what happened to all that? An hour ago my heart had gone to Bemerton. Now with all my heart – the same heart! – I was contemplating other things.

It makes you realise that pious thoughts and religious feelings are a fine thing as far as they go – but they don't go very far. Less than an hour, as it turns out.

So I suppose like everybody else I will have to go on living the Christian life the slow way. I will have to remember that it is more important to be faithful than to be pious. I will have to go on saying my prayers and taking communion and giving alms and wetting my fingers in the baptismal font, day after day and year after year.

I am still glad for one calm clear hour in the church at Bemerton, for the chance to pray with the bones of George Herbert sleeping under my feet. I am glad, too, to have been lucky enough to see a face like the face of the girl at the cafe. For all I know she might have been an angel. For all I know, underneath her clothes there are wings. But angels' wings are no concern of mine. For God made me to walk, not fly.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Audio: Reading George Herbert

Drawing of Herbert's church by Guy Ottewell
I'm writing on George Herbert at the moment, and I've spent this week near Herbert's former church in Bemerton. If you've ever tried getting through life without reading George Herbert, I don't know how you do it. Anyway, after breakfast this morning I made some audio recordings for you of a few Herbert poems:

Monday 18 November 2013

Phone call from uncle (overheard in a London cafe)

In a crowded cafe near Trafalgar Square, a crumpled old donnish-looking gentleman put down the book he had been reading and made a phone call. Though I was sitting at the other side of the room, I had the benefit of hearing the conversation quite distinctly since the gentleman bellowed every syllable at the top of his lungs, holding the phone at a distance from his face like a singer with a microphone. I have thus recorded his words for posterity, as a distillation of general sound advice for young people everywhere.

Hullo! Now I wanted to say I'm frightfully sorry I've not come to see you. I know we talked about it, and I haven't forgot to come, but I'm afraid it's been quite impossible because, as it were, of the weather. It's been awfully cold and wet in the city – sunny from time to time, you understand, but very cold as a rule – and I can't get out much in weather of that sort. But I hear you've settled in, and I wanted, as it were, to say hello and find out how you're doing. So then: how are you finding things in Sussex? And where are you staying? Do you have, as it were, a flat? And are you sharing it with three or four other characters, or do you have your own little place all to yourself? Ah, I see, and these other characters, what are they like? That is to say, do you get along with them? And do you all, as it were, eat together? And how often do you take these meals together? Excellent. I suppose it's one of those little flats with a shared bathroom and loo somewhere in the building? No? Your own loo? Splendid, splendid, excellent. And how are you finding university? I'm sorry we didn't to get to talk about your Johnson paper, we could certainly have had a little talk about that, but I'm sure the paper went splendidly all the same. And what is the teaching like, how do you find it? I suppose by now you've found the good men who are worth hearing? I suppose you're rushing back and forth taking in lectures by all the best people? And have you been all right, because last year you were really quite depressed. How is all that business now? Do you get out and do things? I mean, apart from study and socialising, do you go out, as it were, to discos? What do you do then? Are you involved in any clubs, that is to say, university clubs apart from study? I see. Are there any hobbies, pastimes, that sort of thing? You do what? Now the trouble with poker is that in the end one always ends up losing one's money, so stay away from poker from now on. And what about girls, do you see any girls? Have you managed to find, as it were, a girlfriend? And where does one go to meet girls in Sussex? I see, I see. It was rather different in my day, quite a different thing. Girls today are concerned about hygiene and cleanliness and that sort of business. It really makes it a lot harder for a chap. But you mustn't let it get you down. I'm not talking specifically about sex, if you catch my drift, but you must try to find a girlfriend if you can, just do your best, but above all, don't get too concerned about it. But you must certainly try to get out more often to places with girls. Get out, as it were, in the evenings. Good man, good man. Now then, here is what we shall do. When the weather improves I shall come to see you in Sussex, and we shall have, as it were, a drink together. It'll be soon, soon. But until then: goodbye!

Friday 15 November 2013

Tweeting the books of the Bible

Over the past couple of days I've been having a lot of fun writing a tweet for every book of the Bible. Here's where it's up to so far – and thanks to @KristaNDalton for showing me how to storify these tweets. If you'd like to contribute your own versions, we're using the tag #CanonFodder.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Rock songs for 40 philosophers

by Kim Fabricius

Heraclitus: “Fire” (Bruce Springsteen)
Socrates: “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye)
Plato: “Cave” (Muse)
Aristotle: “Politician” (Cream)
Epicurus: “Let’s Live for Today” (The Grass Roots)
Epictetus: “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones)
Plotinus: “The One” (U2)
Augustine: “Time and Love” (Laura Nyro)
Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham: “School” (Supertramp)
Desiderius Erasmus: “School’s Out” (Alice Cooper)
René Descartes: “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley)
Thomas Hobbes: “Welcome to the Jungle” (Guns N’ Roses)
John Locke: “Uncle John’s Band” (Grateful Dead)
Baruch Spinoza: “You Are Everything” (The Stylistics)
Gottfried Leibniz: “Wonderful World” (Sam Cooke)
George Berkeley: “It’s All in My Mind” (George Jones)
David Hume: “Are You Experienced?” (Jimi Hendrix)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Sincerely” (The Moonglows)
Adam Smith: “Hand in My Pocket” (Alanis Morissette)
Immanuel Kant: “A Well Respected Man” (The Kinks)
Jeremy Bentham: “Rock That Body” (Black Eyed Peas)
 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: “Spirit of the Age” (Hawkwind)
Arthur Schopenhauer: “Dark Turn of Mind” (Gillian Welch)
John Stuart Mill: “Liberty Walk” (Miley Cyrus)
Søren Kierkegaard: “One Is the Loneliest Number” (Aimee Mann)
Karl Marx: “Money” (Pink Floyd)
Friedrich Nietzsche: “If I Had a Hammer” (Trini Lopez)
Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Vienna” (Ultravox)
Miguel de Unamuno: “Tragedy” (Bee Gees)
Martin Buber: “It Takes Two” (Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock)
Martin Heidegger: “Life Will Be the Death of Me” (The Ordinary Boys)
Jean-Paul Sartre: “Me Myself I” (Joan Armatrading)
Emmanuel Lévinas: “Faces” (Scary Kids Scaring Kids)
A. J. Ayer: “Positively 4th Street” (Bob Dylan)
John Austin: “What’s the Word?” (Lil’ Kim)
John Rawls: “Long Black Veil” (The Band)
Michel Foucault: “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy)
Harry Frankfurt: “Rock N’ Roll Bullshit” (Against Me!)
Jacques Derrida: “Hit the Road, Jack” (Ray Charles)
Slavoj Žižek: “Super Freak” (Rick James)

Monday 11 November 2013

The bad lecture

I had been wracked by anxiety as I prepared to give the public lecture. There would be a big audience. They would be expecting to hear something worthwhile. They would be expecting me to be good. I was afraid it would not go well. I was afraid they would not be pleased. I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. I had trouble falling asleep at night because of my restless thoughts.

Then in my bed at night I dreamed of the lecture. I presented it badly, very badly. I stumbled over my words. My thoughts were incoherent. I was not able to get my point across, in fact I could hardly remember what the point was as I strained to get the words out. I could see from the faces in the room that everybody was bored, dispirited, distracted. Wherever I looked I saw people glancing at their watches, fiddling with their phones, or snoozing discreetly in their seats. Then the lecture ended and on their faces I saw not anger or consternation or even disappointment, but only mild embarrassment. Their embarrassment made me embarrassed too as I left the podium and walked stiffly back to my seat.

I woke from the nightmare. The room had grown cold. It was dark except for the sliver of yellow light on the wall from the street lamp. My wife stirred gently in her sleep. I realised I had thrown off the covers. I pulled them up to my chin because I was cold.

I lay in the dark and thought: What a terrible lecture.

Then I thought: So that's the worst that can happen. Embarrassment.

And then I thought: Well then, I can certainly live with that.

I had just given one of the worst lectures of my life, certainly one of the worst five I have ever given, and I was actually – smiling! More than that – I don't quite know how to put this delicately – I actually, well, I chortled for a second before I stopped myself because as everybody knows chortling is a ridiculous way to behave at four in the morning.

And then I rolled over and went back to sleep and slept with a peaceful heart till morning, for I had seen my worst fear and had discovered, to my great surprise, that it was nothing to be afraid of.

Thursday 7 November 2013

The obedience of reading

The other day I was reading Helen Vendler's book on the poetry of George Herbert. It is the product of a powerfully lucid mind. The author opens up each poem with all the delicacy and precision of a clockmaker, exposing the gears inside and showing how each poem works, why the best ones are so good, and how the weaker ones have malfunctioned. It is a consummate piece of literary criticism, absolutely clinical, discriminating, loving, analytical.

I finished the book. I put it down. My heart was full because the book had been so good. I looked out the window from my reading chair and thought about Helen Vendler and the way she reads poems. I got up to make a cup of tea. The dog followed me into the kitchen. He looked pretty halfhearted about it because he is always lazy during the day when the children are at school. A house without children is like a yard without a bone, that's how he sees it. I felt sorry for him, the self-pitying way he watched me boil the kettle, so I rewarded him for his sadness with a bit of dried meat from the cupboard.

I got my tea and went back to the chair and opened the next book. It was about the institution of slavery in ancient Greece and Rome, written by somebody named Joseph Vogt. While the dog went back to sleep beside my feet I studied the picture on the cover and opened the book at random to sample a sentence and inspect the typeface. I rummaged through the index. I examined the table of contents. I consulted the bibliography. I loved the way Helen Vendler had described George Herbert's "native delight in neatness." I thought I should write the phrase down somewhere so I wouldn't forget it. I opened Joseph Vogt's book to the first page and began reading. I read the first page, then the second. By the third page I was beginning to find something vaguely unsettling about this book. Something did not seem right. There was a pebble in the shoe somewhere, but I did not stop to wonder what it was. I kept reading, and half way down the fourth page the question formed itself clearly in my mind: But which one of Herbert's poems is he talking about?

That was when I understood the problem. My eyes had been reading the words on the page, but my mind was still lodged in Helen Vendler's book. I had not, in fact, understood a single word that I had read, for I had unknowingly brought Helen Vendler with me to the other book and was still expecting to find George Herbert under every stone. My eyes were with Joseph Vogt but my mind was aligned with Helen Vendler. As soon as I became aware of the problem I looked out the window and took a second to adjust my mind, calibrating it to the new themes of slavery, ancient Greece, ancient Rome. Then I turned back to the first page and started again. This time I understood what I was reading; it was a good book; I no longer thought of George Herbert and was therefore able to enjoy learning about Greece and Rome.

Anyone who reads books as a way of life will be familiar with this experience, and with the way one's mind requires calibration to different authors and different kinds of books. Even casual distractions require small mental adjustments; this happens whenever you get to the end of a paragraph only to discover that the whole time you were thinking of sex or shopping. But more interesting and more subtle is the way books can interact with one another so that, when putting down one book and taking up another, the book you are reading is muted by a sort of residual presence of another book, an echo of another voice.

The act of calibrating one's mind to the specific nature of a book is, I believe, one of the chief pleasures of reading. It is indeed a pleasure unique to reading, exquisitely dissimilar from the pleasures of other arts like cinema and music. The reading life is a life regulated by this practice of precise internal calibration to the books one loves. The best books are the ones that have to teach us how to read them, how to adapt our expectations to what is present in them. It is why so many great books are so long. Moby-Dick has to be as long as it is; if it were any shorter, our first reading would not allow us time to begin to learn how to read it.

This internal alignment might be described as the obedience of reading: the capacity to yield ourselves to another, to suspend our agendas to make room for something different from ourselves. We experience the pleasure of reading to the degree that we are spiritually capable of such obedience. In a strange way, it is this obedience itself that produces pleasure. That is why books that demand very little adjustment on the part of the reader – a book, let us say, in which everything is predictable from the start – also offer comparatively few pleasures. It is the book that demands a more drastic adjustment of the self that also rewards the reader with greater (in some cases life-changing) pleasures.

And this is why learning to read well requires time and effort. It requires a willingness to go back to the first page and start again – not because reading is hard work but because it is hard-won pleasure. There are books that yield up their peculiar pleasures only after many re-readings. In some instances, years of study may be required before one learns how to enjoy a book. But even the most difficult book is read ultimately in trust that the reward, however delayed, will amply compensate for the trouble it took to obtain it. I have read The Tempest fifteen times in the same year – not because I was addicted to its difficulty for its own sake, but because I found the book's elusive promise of joy so compelling, and because with all my heart I trusted that the book would keep its promise. I read it fifteen times to learn how to align myself with it, how to become obedient to its peculiar magic. I read it fifteen times because I wanted to know how to read it.

I have called this internal work the obedience of reading. But really that is misleading. It will be more accurate if we simply agree to call it love. The art of reading is an art of love. It is a way of going outside myself to discover the strange country of another heart and mind. Aligning myself to the customs of that country is not an onerous burden. It is something more like courtesy, a recognition that there are persons other than myself whose voices are worth hearing and whose hearts are worth knowing.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Dead-duck doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

I once preached a baptismal sermon entitled “Witnessing Your Own Funeral” (cf. Romans 6:1ff.).  The day of my retirement – eucharistic worship followed by a cracking restaurant meal – it too was like being at your own funeral: everybody saying such nice things about you. I guess the old saying “de mortuis nil nisi bene” goes for de emeritis too.

In early retirement I’ve been trying to downsize, separating the wheat from the chaff, discarding stuff that’s accumulated over the years, some of it significant at the time but now baggage, some of it just stuff that got shoved in a corner, some of it crap I’m surprised was even there. Time to get rid and move on. I’ve been doing the same thing with the stuff in my study.

Mañana is said to be the devil’s day.  Not when you’re retired.  When you’re retired, ayer is the devil’s day – the temptation to look back. Mañana is hoy as hope.  

The irony of retirement from pastoral ministry is the realisation that for over 31 years I never worked a day.

I am occasionally asked why I became a minister. The answer is easy: the alternative was terminal unemployment.

Lord, keep me from a Giant Sequoia faith; the small, mustard seed kind will do just fine. For if my faith gets too big, how will I fit through the narrow gate?

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” – passive aggression or what! More deeply, what an exquisite example of the defence mechanism of sublimation, as what is actually felt – “[I] hate the sinner, [I] love the sin” – is transformed into its opposite.

“I am the bread of life” is not good enough for some Christians. They think our Lord was remiss in not adding: “– and you’re toast!”

Why the “delay” of the parousia? Is God giving sinners time to repent? Hell no. Surely it’s to increase apocalyptic tension and terror; but, above all, it is for God’s own good pleasure: vengeance is a dish best served cold, right?

For the Calvinist, God chooses hell for some of his children. For the Arminian, God chooses to let some of his children choose hell for themselves. So it’s like one father kills some of his children, another father lets some of his children commit suicide. And these are the alternatives to universalism? No thanks.

“Love (III)”: George Herbert’s answer to Martin Luther’s question. The definitive answer. Vividly remembering an occasion when she recited it to herself, Simone Weil wrote, “pour la première fois, le Christ est venu me prendre.” For me too this poem is a prayer as sacramental as the feast of which it sings.

I like a good German beer, but I’d rather a bottle of an excellent Burgundy, say a Côte de Nuits Villages: that’s why I prefer Calvin to Luther.

“And you’re special, how?”: the short version of God’s answer to Job.
Shorter version: “Shit happens.”
Silent version: [God hands Job a DVD of The Tree of Life.]

Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. Pope Frances will be the hurricane.

In his recent homiletical broadside against “Christian ideology”, the pope drew an important distinction between praying and saying (set) prayers. I would only add that the Lord’s Prayer itself is not exempt from Francis’ critique. In Luke 11:1ff., the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, not to teach them a prayer. Ditto for eucharistic anaphora: they are not priestly incantations but (as I once heard Rowan Williams put it) “aides-memoires”. Yes, the holy of holies itself may become an ideological charade – indeed an ideological cover-up (cf. I Corinthians 11:17ff.).

On not reading KB: As Walter Benjamin (almost) wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of Barthianism.”

Claude M. Steele’s seminal Whistling Vivaldi (2010) takes its title from the story of an African American student who discovers that, walking the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park, he can take affirmative action and disarm white folk by whistling “tunes” from The Four Seasons.  Which suggests a tactic for women students who are pissed off at feeling marginalised in Barth Studies departments: sisters, don’t give up reading CD, a Pyrrhic protest, rather take the fight to – and the piss from – the Boys with targeted “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” whistle-ins.

I see Joel Osteen has a new book out: Break Out! 5 Keys to Go Beyond Your Barriers and Live an Extraordinary Life. Yep, 5 keys ought to do it, for sure. Ask Steven Tyler or Kate Moss.

What next for Dan Brown? Perhaps The Apostle Screed?

On the whole complementarian/egalitarian debate, I admit to taking the view of an anthropologist on Zog, but you gotta love Rachel Held Evans, who clearly speaks to and for many a shackled sister, while both beguiling and riling the menfolk. Sweetasmicawezizzle, she’s the (married) Mary Poppins of theo-blogdom, “practically perfect in every way”. Indeed, as a theme song for her website, how about “A Spoonful of Sugar (helps the medicine go down)”? I put RHE’s winsome sass down to an undoubtedly Welsh heritage (Ifan, btw, means “God is gracious”): women have always proved more than a match for the men in the “Land of our Fathers.”

At F&T, scrolling down “Blogs I like,” I came to the fine Near Emmaus and clicked “If you could ask @Pastor Mark Driscoll one question…”  “OOPS!” the screen informed me. “It looks like nothing was found at this location.” You couldn’t make it up.

Speaking of MD…  Jesus asks, “How can Satan drive out Satan” (Mark 3:23)? To rephrase the question in a Lewisean kind of way, “How can Screwloose cast out Screwloose?” I don’t know, but it looks like Driscoll and John MacArthur are trying to find out.

Bonhoeffer famously said that not becoming a saint but learning to have faith was his spiritual goal. Here’s a more modest proposal for Christians: let’s try learning not to be such jerks. Like Paul, I’m not ashamed of the Gospel, but too, too often I’m ashamed of myself and the church.

Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God? Maybe, maybe not. But then the same goes for Christians and atheists.

“He follows Jesus and the New York Yankees (in that order)” – From About Peter Enns, on his blog.  I love the parenthesis: it is an inerrant example of a contradiction masquerading as a qualification.  (Btw, here’s a proposal: that Peter change the name of his blog to The Enns-Time, to give it an eschatological edge: apocalyptic always sells. Mind, his opponents might prefer the name Ennsolence.)

Saturday 2 November 2013

The monk's toes

Tarrawarra Abbey, All Souls' Day

So it turns out I have feet. Two of them. They squat like white toads on the green grass, wrinkled, sprouting hairs. Every once in a while the toes twitch and sometimes when they do this a blade of grass pops through one of the cracks between the toes. It gives me joy to see the grass pop through so suddenly.

It appears there is something wrong with the toes, for each of them has grown a curious yellowish claw. What are they for? What will the feet do with these sharp protrusions? Use them to catch prey? Dig holes? Peel fruit? They could, I suppose, be used to soothe me if I brought my mouth down very close to chew them. Chewing the nails along my fingers is a thing that I have always liked to do, and I have always found it soothing. But the toes do not look appetising, and besides, a centipede is making his way across one foot and I would never want to startle him or to bite his little legs off by mistake. Walk on, little brother! I will keep an eye out for you and make sure no harm comes to you!

And how did they get so wrinkled, my toes? The rest of me is young, youthful, very fresh and new, a  spring chicken. But the toes are prunes. They look, if I am not mistaken, nearly a hundred years old. There must be some mistake. I check my legs, running both hands from the knees down to the ankles. No, there is no denying it, those feet are definitely my feet, the toes my toes. Well. That is disappointing. I forgive you, toes! I hold nothing against you!

Just think, I must have been lugging these toes around with me all this time but never knew it. Oh, I suppose I might have caught a glimpse of them from time to time. I recall trimming the nails once or twice. I recall showering, toes being washed and dried with a towel. I must have noticed them too the time I cut my toe, for I must have cut it once upon a time, the scar is proof. I am sorry if I hurt you, toe. Forgive me! Let us speak no more about it!

Let us say then that I have seen these toes before, yes, that I have quite definitely seen them, but had never truly noticed their existence until now, until today, until I pulled my shoes off and sat down under this kind wise tree and prayed and stared for one hour at my toes.

The centipede has stopped to take a look around. He cannot decide whether to walk across the toes, five arduous hairy hills, or to go back where he came from. He is sniffing around with his antennae. Perhaps he is trying to establish if this is all dead meat, these feet, or a living thing; he wants to know if he should start eating me now or come back later. A little later, brother! A little longer and I will lie down in the ground and feed you.

The tree's big shade is very good to me. It makes it good to sit here praying and looking at my feet. The branches creak when the wind comes up the hill. Some of the leaves fall down but not too many. I lie back in the grass and look up at the branches that stretch into the sky, a leafy ladder. Sometimes, I have often felt it, a great urge has come upon me to climb the ladder. I would go up to the highest branches and look out from the treetop. I would love to climb your branches, sister, and to look down at the river. Nobody would see me there but I would see the winding river and the bridge and the cows over the first or second hill. One day I will do it, I know I will. One day, sister, when I am younger I will climb every branch until I reach the top. And then I will climb back down smiling at the terrific secret of it and climb down under the ground and rest there in the shade with my toes tucked under your roots for fertiliser, deep down there beside my brothers, and all of us will pray under the ground and feed you and feed the grass and I will be a great feast for the little tickly centipedes which I love.

But not today. I am only resting. This is just the dress rehearsal. Some days, on days like this, the thought of dying grows so big in me that I am frightened that my face will break in two from smiling.

Monday 28 October 2013

Review: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (2nd edition)

A guest-review by Jeff Aernie

Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 2nd edition. IVP 2013. xxxi + 1088 pp.

For over two decades lecturers, students, and pastors have benefited greatly from the IVP Dictionary series. The first edition of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (DJG) proved to be a wealth of information, becoming an instant success for its breadth and quality.

Given the widespread acclaim of the first edition it may seem odd that a second edition was needed. Many of the articles in the first edition continue to provide relevant introductions to the various aspects of Gospel studies which they represent. And yet, in light of the increasing speed at which Gospel studies has advanced, the second edition of DJG is a welcome contribution.

Most of those who are familiar with the first edition of DJG will simply want to know what is different between the two editions. One might be inclined to say: everything. It would be unfair and inaccurate to refer to this second edition as a mere revision – it represents a substantial update. Although there is significant overlap in terms of the entries, most of the articles are original contributions composed by new authors. Those few articles that have the same author in both editions have been substantially edited, with updates to both content and bibliography.

In terms of actual entries, there are 24 new headings, and 14 others that reflect either revised terminology (e.g., “Dreams” becomes “Dreams and Visions” and “Temple Clearing” becomes “Temple Act”) or a combination of previous articles (e.g., the songs of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah are now combined into the more systematic “Songs and Hymns”). Several of the new entries revolve around more contemporary forms of criticism (i.e., “African American Criticism”; “Canonical Criticism”; “Feminist and Womanist Criticisms”; “Latino/Latina Criticism”; “Narrative Criticism”; “Postcolonial Criticism”). The other major area of study that sees increased attention in this edition is social-historical material, with contributions on “Cynics and Cynicism”; “Economics”; “Essenes”; “Gods, Greek and Roman”; “Judaism, Common”; “Orality and Oral Transmission”; “Sadducees”; “Slave, Servant.”

Three new contributions in particular represent significant advances. Richard Bauckham’s new article on “Christology” provides a systematic summary of the Christological emphasis of each Gospel, as well as tracing common characteristics across the fourfold Gospel. Given the focus of the volume, this type of synthetic treatment was a welcome addition. Joel Green, the only contributor to serve as an editor for both volumes, offers an important contribution on “Historicisms and Historiography.” While the relationship between history and the study of the Gospels has remained important since the publication of the first edition, questions of methodology have shifted. Green’s concise treatment of criteria-based historicism, critical-realist-based historicism, and social memory theory will provide a clear introduction for the next generation of Gospel students. It is also worth mentioning the addition of a constructive article on the “Theological Interpretation of the Gospels.” Andy Johnson here provides a clear description of a burgeoning area of study that should be mandatory reading for all theological students.

Most of the articles that were omitted from the second edition reflect a process of streamlining. For example, the older articles on “Benefactor” and “Taxes” are now helpfully subsumed under the more constructive essay on “Economics.” Two omissions, however, were particularly unfortunate. Most noticeably, the loss of Sidney Greidanus’ article on “Preaching from the Gospels” constitutes a significant deficiency. Students and pastors will want to return to Greidanus’ insights in the first edition of DJG. Perhaps less significant, given its widespread influence on other articles, is the omission of an article on “Rhetorical criticism.” Given the inclusion of a number of new articles on methodology in this edition it seems unusual that this would be removed as a separate entry.

Those minor complaints aside, one need neither be a prophet nor the son of one in order to assert that this edition of DJG will stand alongside its predecessor as an essential tool for New Testament studies. The editorial team is to be commended for creating a reference tool that will undoubtedly contribute to the future shape of the discipline.


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