Monday 20 January 2014

Here’s-the-deal doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Doctrinally, on the Trinity, original sin, and the resurrection, liberals condescendingly consider me conservative; on inerrancy, penal substitution and hell, conservatives consider me anathematisably liberal. Similarly, ethically, on abortion and assisted suicide – ultra conservative; on divorce and re-marriage, let alone same-sex relationships – ultra liberal; while my pacifism – “unrealistic” – bemuses or infuriates liberals and conservatives alike. God Hates Tags.

An ΙΧΘΥΣ rots from the heart up.

Those moment-of-truth selfies of Cameron, Obama, and Thorning-Schmidt at Mandela’s funeral got me thinking: how about a cartoon of, say, Osteen, Driscoll, and Hinn taking selfies at Golgotha?

When you listen to a sermon, ask yourself: Good News – or Good News-management?

On leaving the tomb, Lazarus “began to weep.” And in the following days and weeks, he lay “in bed in a darkened room … [and] could barely swallow water and barely hold down soft bread which had been soaked in water…. If he had come back to life it was merely to say a last farewell to it…. There was something supremely alone about him …; he was in possession of a knowledge that seemed … to have unnerved him; he had tasted something or heard something which had filled him with the purest pain, which had in some grim and unspeakable way frightened him beyond belief.” – A passage from Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (2012). Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, the novella has been condemned as impertinent, hateful, even blasphemous. Which I consider accolades for an author who can so disturbingly depict such a hauntingly cruciform character. But perhaps you prefer your Lazarus marrying a local krasavitse and living happily ever?

Good people never think they are good people, and bad people never think they are bad people. Figure it.

There were several catastrophes to hit the US in 1978. In January, there was the Great Blizzard, also known as the Cleveland Superbomb, a natural disaster. In April, there was the collapse of a cooling tower under construction at Willow Island, West Virginia, a terrible tragedy. In November, there was the Jonestown Massacre, a horrendous moral evil. Oh, and a month earlier, in October, there was a theological catastrophe: the bombshell of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. No one died, but the fallout continues to be toxic 35 years later.

Michael Bird is bang on about the doctrine of inerrancy being a particularly American cultural phenomenon. Which should not be surprising given the theo-political identity of the US, the intricate interweaving of the biblical and American narratives: the thematic discourse of “the chosen people”, the myth of American exceptionalism, the ideology of missionary colonialism (aka “manifest destiny”), the oratory of the “indispensable nation”, and, morally, the holy republic, “under God”, incapable of doing wrong. There is also the neat fit between the “common sense” realism of inerrancy and good old Yankee pragmatism. Finally, observe the rhetorical violence, the crusading pugnacity, the Alamo spirit with which inerrancy is often deployed and defended – and the civil wars fought over it within evangelicalism itself – again, how quintessentially American. Yep, Inerrancy and America – Right or Wrong – they are an, er, infallible fit.

How do we know what the Pope is really saying, what he actually means? Perhaps a “Francis Seminar” could tell us, exploring the theological development of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, examining texts, written and oral, canvassing emerging traditions, and proposing criteria of authenticity. Then again, perhaps not.

Clerical vestments or casual dress? Thus the discussion in the C of E on the relaxation of canon law regarding liturgical attire. But surely I cannot be the only worshipper who has observed such hilarious examples of Anglican compromise as – peeping out beneath the cassock, chinos/jeans and trainers/sandals (with socks!). Oh, the sartorial solecisms of (male) vicars!

Some New Testament scholars suggest, as a felicitous rendering of δικαιοσύνη in Romans, the word “rectification”. But some Christians are so hell-bent on the ungodly getting eschatologically shafted that, for them, I propose a neologistic alternative: the word “rectalfuckation”. Yes, it’s obscene, but it has the merit of honesty, while also being luridly redolent of the iconography of the damned.

Worst Theology Fail of all time? Easy, Dispensational Premillennialism: for its ignorant literalism, its prophecy-as-prognostication, its insidious supercessionism, its Manichaean moralism, its battlefield-and-furnace apocalypticism, and its socio-political complacency, indeed right-wing extremism. An F flatters it.

As Pascal said, “All of our problems come from one thing: the inability to sit quietly in a room without being connected.”

Xeno’s Paradox: “I’m not a racist or a nationalist, but there must be limits to the immigration of swarthy people who can’t speak English. As Jesus said, charity begins at home.”

William Lane Craig avers that even the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed over 230,000 people, “would be great [his italics]” if God could use it to bring more people to Christ. Indeed, Craig exclaims, “Thank God for the suffering!” In The Doors of the Sea (2005), David Bentley Hart asks: Who would try to comfort the anguished Sri Lankan father, weeping as he recounted how he could not save four of his five children from the fatal flood, “by assuring him … that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history”? Answer: “Only a moral cretin.... And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” Sam Harris refers to Lane Craig as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” But which God is that? A Panglossian one. For Chrissake, New Atheists, man up! It’s the theodicy, stupid. Hart again: “It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.”

Revelation 3:20 (contemporary translation): “I stand at the gate and ring. Then, as I wait under the ominous eye of the CCTV camera, in the blinding glare of the LED security lighting, I hear your paranoid voice requesting my name, company, and purpose of visit. Then, as I begin to answer, I notice the pack of Dobermans in the yard. Upshot: even if you buzz me in – what, you think I’m nuts? – I’m out of here.”

I’ve always been a digressor in conversation, as one idea sparks another, which sparks another, which sparks another …; but if my interlocutors were patient, they usually found I’d land the plane, even if they didn’t like the airport. Nowadays, however, my wife tells me I either shuttle into space, or crash and burn.

It’s just been announced that the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols is to “receive the red galero”. I thought: “Lucky bugger – a papal gift of the finest strawberry Italian ice cream!” Silly me: it turns out it’s just a big fancy hat (much fancier than the one worn by Cardinal Ximénez [Michael Palin] in Monty Python’s fabulous sketch “The Spanish Inquisition”).

The natural world as we observe it, study it, indwell it, feel it – creationists actually hate it. Along with Gnostics and Manichaeans, creationists are Christianity’s ktisisphobes.

The resurrection has been called an eruption, an explosion, a cosmic convulsion, God’s “Yes!” to the universe. Make that a “Yes! Yes! Oh, yes!” and what do you got? Not your usual Easter apologetics, that’s for sure. But then your usual Christian sexual apologetics make shtupping about as seismic as rolling rice.

Reflecting on his debt to Pentecostalism, Brian LePort wisely observes, “Isn’t it funny how some of the things that were important to you during your most formative years remain important no matter how far you stray from them?” That’s certainly true of my earliest experience of Presbyterianism, as a child at the Old First Church in Huntington, Long Island: getting chucked out of Sunday School for throwing spit balls – and my high rate of recidivism – remains a massive milestone in my theological journey.

On January 12th I preached for the first time since my “retirement” on October 6th (on Matthew 2:18/Jeremiah 31:15). Over three months. I was nervous. I mean more nervous than usual. (If you’re not nervous when you enter the pulpit, you shouldn’t be there.) But I needn’t have been so nervous. It was like falling off a bike.

Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom, studies show that lavishing praise on our children does not build up their sense of wellbeing and purpose; on the contrary, constant praise increases their anxiety and decreases their motivation. As Stephen Grosz observes in his multifaceted little jewel The Examined Life (2013), the best that we can offer our children is not praise but presence. And I wonder – wonder if our contemporary obsession with praise – praise worship, praise music, praise paraphernalia – reflects an infantilising not only of our faith but of our God; wonder whether God, who is humble, not vain or needy, desires not our praise but our presence; and submit that this presence, if authentic and mature, will include our adoration, of course, but also our pain and pathos, our doubt and despondency, our contrition and confusion, our anger and accusation. In short, less palms, more Psalms – the 40% conspicuous in liturgy by their absence.

She would have been 30 on January 9th:
A day that the sun never rose,
A day that the years cannot close –
Our Hannah still-born – and still mourned.
Three decades of living a lament and longing for a lullaby.

How does one get through a depressing grey, wet, and windy Welsh winter? By turning one’s thoughts towards Easter – because God, in his wisdom and grace, has (more or less) aligned it with Opening Day.

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