Thursday 27 February 2014

The story of Jesus in 55 rock songs

by Kim Fabricius

Annunciation (Mary): “She Talks to Angels” (Black Crowes)
Annunciation (Joseph): “I Heard It through the Grapevine” (Marvin Gaye)
Birth: “Push It” (Salt-n-Pepa)
Presentation: “Cut It Out” (Indigo Girls)
Boy in the Temple: “Runaway” (Del Shannon)
John the Baptist (person): “Wild Thing” (Troggs)
John the Baptist (message): “People Get Ready” (Impressions)
Baptism: “Muddy Water” (Nick Cave)
Temptations: “Hotter Than Hell” (Kiss)
First Sermon in Nazareth: “Jive Talkin’” (Bee Gees)
Wedding at Cana: “Don’t Drink the Water” (David Matthews Band)
Sermon on the Mount: “What I’d Say” (Ray Charles)
Healing of the Paralysed Man: “Up on the Roof” (Drifters)
Parables: “Mind Games” (John Lennon)
Mary and Family outside House: “Rag Mama Rag (The Band)
Woman Caught in Adultery: “We Will Rock You” (Queen)
Woman with the Alabaster Jar: “Hot Stuff” (Donna Summer)
Woman with the Haemorrhage: “U Can't Touch This” (MC Hammer)
Crippled Woman Healed on Sabbath: “Daughter of Abraham” (Arcade Fire)
Jairus’ Daughter: “Wake Up, Little Suzie” (Everly Brothers)
Feeding of Four/Five Thousand: “Stoned Soul Picnic” (Laura Nyro)
On the Lake: “Madman across the Water” (Elton John)
Caesarea Philippi: “My Days Are Numbered” (Blood, Sweat, & Tears)
Transfiguration (Jesus): “Sunshine of Your Love” (Cream)
Transfiguration (Peter, James, and John): “Dazed and Confused” (Led Zeppelin)
Rich Young Man: “Go Your Own Way” (Fleetwood Mac)
Lazarus: “Wake Me Up Inside” (Evanescence)
Children: “Give the Kid a Break” (Alice Cooper)
Zacchaeus: “Your House” (Alanis Morissette)
Triumphal Entry: “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (Glee)
Cleansing of the Temple: “Whip It” (Devo)
Scribes and Pharisees: “Hey Fuck You” (Beastie Boys)
Judas’ Betrayal: “Can’t Buy Me Love” (Beatles)
Basin and Towel: “Stink Foot” (Frank Zappa)
Last Supper: “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” (Simple Minds)
Gethsemane: “In the Midnight Hour” (Wilson Pickett)
Arrest: “Kiss” (Prince)
Peter’s Denial: “My Best Friend” (Jefferson Airplane)
Mocking Soldiers: “Don’t Be Cruel” (Elvis Presley)
Before Pilate: “Ain’t It the Truth” (Dramarama)
Before the Crowd: “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (Righteous Brothers)
Crucifixion (Elevation): “I Can See for Miles” (The Who)
Crucifixion (First Word): “Forgiven, Not Forgotten” (Coors)
Crucifixion (Second Word): “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Bob Dylan)
Crucifixion (Third Word): “A Real Mother for Ya” (Johnny “Guitar” Watson)
Crucifixion (Fourth Word): “Help!” (Beatles)
Crucifixion (Fifth Word): “Drinkin’ Thing” (Gary Stewart)
Crucifixion (Sixth Word): “Shout” (Otis Day and the Knights)
Crucifixion (Seventh Word): “This Is the End” (Doors)
The Centurion: “I’m a Believer” (Monkees)
Resurrection (Angel): “Nobody’s Home” (Avril Lavigne)
Resurrection (Mary Magdalene): “No Woman, No Cry” (Bob Marley and the Wailers)
Resurrection (Emmaus): “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen)
Resurrection (Thomas): “Scar Tissue” (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Ascension: “Eight Miles High” (Byrds)

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Tweeting the Psalms: Book II

Psalm 42: There came a day when deep called to deep, and all the world's sorrow was compressed into a parched cry: "I thirst!"

Psalm 43: O Joy of my joy, with hands lifted high I drag my heavy heart into Your presence

Psalm 44: You loved my parents and all my ancestors. When Your love for me seems doubtful, I will cling to Your love for them

Psalm 45: Faster than a typewriter, as fluent as a twitter timeline, my tongue pours out praises to Your Messiah

Psalm 46: O doom of the earth, I love You! You doom armies to dust. You break their weapons. You condemn the nations to peace

Psalm 47: Creation is a feast, and You recline at the head of the table

Psalm 48: If I travel far enough in any direction, starting from anywhere, I will arrive at the axis: Your presence, Your love

Psalm 49: I brought nothing into the world (except Your love); when I depart again I'll take nothing with me (except Your love)

Psalm 50: What can I give You that is not already Yours? Only my thanks, the gift of empty hands.

Psalm 51: If only You'd open my lips: then I would sing. If only You'd rebuild me: then my crushed bones would dance the salsa

Psalm 52: When You come to weed the garden, will You leave me planted here? Am I an olive tree? Or one of the weeds?

Psalm 53: We deny You with our deeds before we ever deny You with words. O make my life good so that my lips will not deny You!

Psalm 54: Even before You rescue me, I will give thanks. I see You rushing to my aid, and my song flies out to meet You

Psalm 55:
Que selah selah
Whatever will be will be
Your love will be there for me
Que selah selah

Psalm 56: You seek me in my wanderings. You have counted all my tears; You keep them in a bottle

Psalm 57: My praise is truer than time; you could set your watch by it. Even the sun doesn't get up until it hears me singing

Psalm 58: I'll have such revenges that all the world shall—I will do such things—What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.

Psalm 59: Wolves prowl the empty streets. Above their hungry whining, I raise my voice and sing of Your love

Psalm 60: Well. This is awkward. Just after I told everyone You were on my side...

Psalm 61: I want a thousand years with You. I'd bring You gifts each day; I'd sing till my heart was wide enough to contain You

Psalm 62: I will sing You one love song, two songs will I sing: a song of Your loving power, and a song of Your powerful love

Psalm 63: Parched, I thirst for You more than water. Famished, I feast on memories of You. Lost, I long for You more than home

Psalm 64: When they saw me, they shot arrows at my heart; when You saw me, You turned their arrows into boomerangs

Psalm 65: The fields reach longing leaves towards You; the seas sigh restlessly; the rivers sing psalms over stones

Psalm 66: The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land

Psalm 67: As the sun rules day and night, so Your shining face makes nations rise and fall

Psalm 68: Judah praises You, Zebulon sings, Naphtali too! Even the little tribe of Benjamin has struck up a tune!

Psalm 69: Crushed and humiliated, I sink down into the pit, with nothing in my mouth except vinegar, gall, and praise

Psalm 70: I'll sing the first line, You sing the second line: my poverty and Your mercy make a rhyme

Psalm 71: In youth You were my strength. In old age You are my comfort. In the grave You will be my brightness and eternal joy

Psalm 72: Your Messiah will be lifted up; the songs of the poor will pierce his heart, and his justice will fall like dew.

Saturday 22 February 2014

In praise of bad art (and bad saints)

Tonight I went to see a bad play. It was Shakespeare, one of the greatest plays ever written, and it was terrible. The actors affected accents. Their costumes hung on them like scarecrows' clothes. They misunderstood their lines, and misremembered them. They shouted when they should have whispered and whispered when they should have shouted. They made us laugh when the business was solemn and made us miserable when we should have been laughing. They stood in a straight line reciting speeches one by one, each remaining stock still while all the others took turns declaiming. It was as if the director had adopted the worst techniques of ancient Greek theatre, adorning a stage with speaking statues.

I twisted in my seat. I wrung my hands. I felt the roots of my hair turning slowly grey inside my head. Profound and grave was my unhappiness. When they mispronounced the words I grimaced. When they got the lines wrong I scowled. I drank too much wine, and it was not because of joy.

At last, to my immense relief, it was all over. I gave them a mighty applause and blessed them for their efforts and went home feeling thoroughly optimistic about the future of theatre in this country.

I am, you see, a great believer in bad art. In every arena of human creativity, one needs a multitude of failures and mediocrities. They are the condition for the emergence of that rare thing, the artistic genius. Without all the dull painters and all the mediocre art schools, there could have been no Chagall and no Picasso. Without all the appalling nine-year-old violinists screeching on their instruments at the Wednesday night school concert, there could be no Jascha Heifetz and no Vivaldi. Without a million dull English children studying their dull books, there could never have been a Virginia Woolf and a Dr Johnson.

In the same way, we need many actors like the ones I saw tonight so that we can have a few like Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen.

There is no point resenting mediocrity. Every living tradition consists mostly of mediocrity. If you're going to resent mediocrity in art, just make sure you also remember to resent schools, education, childhood. The purist is a person without understanding. He hates the seedbed from which the things he loves will grow.

It is this same lack of understanding, I believe, that generates so much resentment for the mediocrity – it is usually called "hypocrisy" – of the average churchgoing Christian. We religious believers are, as a rule, pretty unexceptional. Only with the greatest difficulty and inconsistency do we ever manage to align some bits of our lives with what we profess to believe. What can we say? We are sorry! We have been to all the rehearsals! We wish we could do it better! But the great mass of unexceptional believers should be judged ultimately not by its weakest cases but by its strongest: St Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa.

Tonight I watched those poor actors with their garbled speeches and their stiffly moving limbs, and I thought to myself: great heavens, they might have gone to the same acting school as Geoffrey Rush! They would have learned all the same techniques! They would have memorised all the same speeches! Everything the untalented actor aspires to do, Geoffrey Rush does in spirit and in truth. His one great performance is the justification of a thousand mediocrities.

St Francis is baptised with the same baptism as every other believer. He attends the same communion service and repeats the same words. He reads the same scriptures. He performs with perfection the same role that the rest of us perform so woodenly. His saintliness does not set him above common believers, but among them because he is from them. The rest of us will try (and fail) all our lives to do by letter what he accomplishes in spirit.

As bad theatre exists for the sake of great theatre, perhaps all of us – poor specimens of humanity that we are – exist for the saints. For all I know, I might be living my whole life just so that one day, a thousand years from now, a saint will come into the world, borne along by the current of a living tradition that consists of the ordinary untalented holiness of a great multitude that cannot be numbered.

When the theatrical atrocity ended tonight, I applauded not just for the actors onstage but for what they represent and what they make possible. I hope our lives will end the same way. Yes, we bungle our roles. Yes, the playwright would be ashamed to see it. Yes, we produce little more than actorly affectations of humanity. Yet God and all the holy angels shower us with applause – not because of ourselves, but because of what we represent and what we help to make possible. We do it poorly so that somewhere, some day, some virtuoso will step on to the stage and do it well. In the saint's great performance of a human life, all of us come to recognise what we had aimed at all along. As we admire the holy genius of the saint, for one cleansing unselfconscious moment we might even dare to admire our own amateurish efforts.

Monday 17 February 2014

Doolally doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Contemporary evangelism markets soteriological outcomes, contemporary spirituality deracinates and commodifies monastic techniques, and contemporary worship trades on relevance and coolness, self-expression and authenticity.  Thus the Westminster Shorter Catechism (revised): Q: What is the chief end of man?  A: Man's chief end is to utilise God and exploit him forever.

Deep inside every human being is a scumbag struggling to stay hidden.  Bear that in mind if you sign up for a “journey of self-discovery”.

Ecclesiology Fail: “The kingdom is a divine community whereas the Church is a human community” (Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context).

Staying with Fresh Expressions as “new ways of being church”: is not its missionary strategy of forming networked churches consisting of people with similar interests and lifestyles a postmodern application of Donald  McGavran’s “homogeneous unit principle”, which Lesslie Newbigin discredited for its uncritical acceptance of, indeed surrender to, contemporary culture?  In particular, observe FE’s disingenuous separation of socialisation – its communities are overwhelmingly bourgeois, therapeutic, apolitical – from radical theological formation.

A new study from the University of Tokyo demonstrates that while cats can distinguish the voice of their owner from strangers, they don’t really give a shit.  There you go: conclusive proof that it’s the cat, not the dog, that’s the patron beast of too many Christians.

“Everybody’s got a hungry heart” (Springsteen, riffing on Augustine), a hunger that cannot be satisfied at McDonald’s, or even at Mugaritz, but only at Chez Jesus. 

“Biblical Illiteracy is a Sign of Ignorance of Religion, History, Literature, and Art,” leads Michael Bird, in a post decrying “the state of secularism in Australia”.  Fair dinkum.  Indeed, perhaps in new editions of the gospels, the narratives of Holy Week should be prefaced with the phrase “Spoiler Alert!”.  We should not, however, be smug: I fear Michael is chucking a rock from a glass cathedral (cf. Nicholas Lash’s palpable hit that, in his experience, even “highly educated Christians [in Britain] … probably suppose The Tablet to be something that you get from Boots the chemist”).

There are two kinds of people in the church: those who divide the church into two kinds of people, and those who are going to hell.

“In the face of that revelation the scales fell from my eyes. My long inner struggle was at an end.”  That’s Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.  Call it the “banality of the conversion narrative”.

Too many evangelical testimonies are to the church what Oscar acceptance speeches are to the film industry.

William Stringfellow asked: “Can a homosexual be a Christian?”  And he answered: “Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol.”  I would ask: “Can a heterosexual be a Christian?”  And I would give Stringfellow’s answer: “Yes: if his sexuality is not an idol.”  Yet that, I submit, is precisely what much of the anti-gay faction in the church has done: turn heterosexuality into an idol.

Rowan Williams begins “The Body’s Grace” by observing that “Most of us know that the whole business [of sexual intimacy] is irredeemably comic.”  The problem is that most Christians who write about sex either don’t know that sex is irredeemably comic, which in itself is irredeemably comic, or write about sex with such earnestness and didacticism that their pontifications are irredeemably comic. 

So the Ham of God debated Science Guy Nye on “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” (a zombie question – the argument is dead).  Alas, Nye, for all his scientific pickle, was unable to cure Ham of his biblical baloney.  Ham remains a crock monsieur.

Speaking of speaking of Ham as a lunchmeat: this would not be the first time that I have characterised certain Christian leaders as airheads, idiots.  However, some readers have kindly referred me to the stern words of Jesus (in Matthew 5:22) about calling a brother (or presumably a sister) raka (meaning, precisely, an airhead, or, as Peterson translates, yes, an idiot).  Very well, I withdraw the epithets – and replace them with “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16).  Not only (WWJD?  Rather WDJD?!) is it a term used by Jesus himself – and with specific reference to religious leaders – I am also confident that our Lord would agree with my assessments.  Mind, Jesus adds (in Matthew 23:17) that these “blind guides” are also “morons” (μωροὶ).

Romans, Romans, Romans.  Paradigmatically, for Augustine, for Luther, for Wesley, for Barth, Romans was the tipping point.  But not for Bonhoeffer.  For Bonhoeffer, it was the Sermon on the Mount.  Not chastity, or mercy, or grace, or the Godness of God, but the commanding power of Jesus and simple obedience.  Btw, many people wish, “If only Bonhoeffer had been able to elaborate his ideas on religionless Christianity”.  Me – I would like to have seen him develop a proper pneumatology. 

Staying with Bonhoeffer: as intrinsic to “religion” for Bonhoeffer is a deity of intervening power (the deus ex machina) and “cheap grace”, and an individual who exists in unmediated relationships with other people, each characterised by their “inwardness” and morally motivated by their “ideals” – well, today I could see him probing for a “spiritualityless Christianity”.

“A recent long-term study has indicated that cannabis affects young brains differently than those of adults, leaving teenage users ‘at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory’” (Eureka Street, 31/1/14).  From which I conclude that there must be THC in the water supply.

Still on the subject of cannabis: have you ever felt that talking with fundamentalists, both old Christian and new atheist, is like banging your head against a brick wall?  Take heart!  During Holy Super Bowl Week I was interested to read that such is the evidence that cannabis may be helpful in treating head injuries that no less than the NFL has promised that it will be closely monitoring developments.  Thus I envision a new apologetics, better equipped – and a helluva lot more fun!

Here’s a major implication of Open Theism: Open Theists should pray not only to God, their theology suggests that they should also pray for God.  For example: “Dear God, sorry Plan A didn’t work out.  Hey, shit happens, right?  So hang in there.  And be encouraged: if at first you don’t succeed, think of how many atheists you’ve made happy.  Seriously though, just remember, there’s always plan B (you do have a Plan B, don’t you?), and we trust that it will all work out for you in the end.  Take care, Big Buddy.  Amen.”

In contrast, your Hyper-Calvinist: “Glorious God, you are glorious, so glorious, so soo glorious.  Awesome!  Your power is perfect and irresistible, your plan – all the i’s dotted, all the t’s crossed.  Sure, life sucks – the agonising suffering, the horrendous evils – but still they give you, er, glory.  Besides, it’s all our fault and we deserve what we get.  Please forgive us – the saved, that is.  The damned, fuck ‘em.  Amen.”

The unreasonable person is dangerous; the reasonable person more dangerous still.

I read today that experts are predicting that rats “could evolve to the size of sheep”.  Which should raise a flurry of concern at Fox News over the cost of providing smaller suits, dresses, and furniture for their on-air personalities.

Recommended ascetical practice for Lent: spend a few hours every Saturday at the mall/shopping centre – with particular attention to PC World – and observe all the crap that you don’t really want.

People who write really well, with elegance, luminosity, and wit, can yet say some embarrassingly unintelligent things.  Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example, are both brilliant stylists, yet their screeds on religion are sophomoric rants.  Reading their New Atheist stuff is like watching a baseball player with the swing of Ted Williams slumping to an average of a buck-fifty.

I had a call from my son-in-law today.  He said he was going to a funeral tomorrow and asked if I had anything yellow to wear.  I pictured my wardrobe.  “No, sorry,” I said.  “Not even a tie with a yellow stripe?”  “No,” I replied.  “The best I can do is orange – but I don’t suppose you’d want to wear my Mets hoodie.”  On the day he wore a daffodil in his lapel.  Themed funerals have become very fashionable in the UK.  I know of one – the deceased was a fanatical football fan – where everyone was asked to wear an item of Liverpool clothing, a shirt, a scarf, a beanie, etc.  And I thought: imagine the funeral of a Yankee zealot: everyone in pinstripes, on steroids, maybe a show-off with a Topps 1952 Micky Mantle neatly pinned to his breast – conducted, for sure, by a Satanist, and concluding with a Black Mass.

Monday 3 February 2014

On daily writing routines: or, What to switch on and what to switch off

I've learned a lot about writing by observing people who write in cafes.

There is a place I used to go in California that always seemed to be full of writers – students, professors, novelists, writers of screenplays and children's books and humanitarian reports. It was a popular spot and the coffee was good. Over a few months I myself drafted two whole books at that cafe (it must have been the quality of the coffee); though I discarded both books after I'd finished them (it must have been the quantity of the coffee.)

In that particular establishment, I took great interest in studying the routines of the writers who came through the door. Ninety percent of them followed exactly the same pattern, which I will now describe for you as carefully as I can:
  1. Writer orders coffee.
  2. Writer finds a suitable table in the cafe. Some deliberations regarding lighting, position of chair (facing towards or away from window), distance from other tables, power socket requirements, etc.
  3. Writer opens laptop or Moleskine notebook. 
  4. Writer checks phone.
  5. Sends message or email or performs facebook thingy on phone.
  6. Repeats steps 4 and 5 for the next 90 minutes.
  7. Sheepishly places phone in pocket: closes laptop or Moleskine notebook: shuffles out the door: very dejected: will probably drink alone tonight.
After making a careful study of this pattern, I discovered that there is a certain mysterious correlation between internet access and a writer's happiness. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. The less you have of one, the more you have of the other.

I don't use cafes much anymore. But I'm working on a writing project at the moment, using the following daily routine. Feel free to borrow any of these steps if you find them helpful:
  1. Get up at the same time every day a couple of hours before dawn. (In my case the timing is critical because of The Children.)
  2. Switch on lights in kitchen. 
  3. Switch on coffee machine.
  4. Switch off wireless router. 
  5. Switch off phone.
  6. Sit down at kitchen table. Drink coffee. Write 770 words. (Or whatever your daily limit is: I find I can manage 770 words without too much fear or exhaustion. 800 would be impossible.)
  7. Once I've reached my word length I reward myself with a small tick in my diary. If I miss a day, a condemnatory cross is placed in the diary. (The ticks make you Happy. A whole row of ticks at the end of the week makes you Very Happy.) 
  8. When you are finished, reverse steps 2 through 5, switching off what you had switched on and switching on what you had switched off. And do it all to the glory of God.

Sunday 2 February 2014

10 rules for preaching on the parables

After hearing a Bad Sermon today on one of the parables from the Gospel of St Matthew, I tweeted ten rules for preaching on the parables – I've listed them below. 

Personally I believe the parables are probably the hardest parts of scripture to preach on. It's like trying to explain a joke: no matter how well you do it, you still end up feeling that you've missed the point. Some of the better sermons I've heard on the parables are sermons that take a cluster of parables instead of just one: Luke 15 is an obvious example, with the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son; even if it's not always as clear-cut as that, there are plenty of other cases where the evangelists' arrangement of multiple parables can provide a larger theme that helps to guide the preacher away from over-explaining the individual features of a particular parable. At times a sort of reader-response approach to the parables can be a good idea too: elaborating on the way the parable affects the hearers can again steer the preacher away from the deadening evils of allegorical and moralistic interpretations. 

I also reckon preachers on the parables would benefit from a healthy immersion in the great tradition of Jewish humour – from the Talmud, with its quirky rabbinic anecdotes and preposterous legal examples, right down to modern Jewish comic geniuses like Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, and Woody Allen. I'm not an expert nor the son of an expert, but my feeling is that Jesus' teaching makes just as much sense when you see it within this tradition of Jewish humour as it does when viewed within traditions of the travelling sage, apocalyptic prophet, messianic revolutionary, or whatever else is in vogue at the moment.

Anyway, here are ten rules for preaching on Jesus' parables (intended more for use by preachers than by parishioners!).

Rule #1: Don't assume that God is necessarily one of the characters in the parable.

Rule #2: Don't assume that the parable is trying to tell you how to improve your life.

Rule #3: Don't assume that you're the goodie in the story (and that other people are the baddies).

Rule #4: If you can explain the whole parable without mentioning the words "kingdom of God," you're probably doing it wrong.

Rule #5: If it ends up having anything to do with going to heaven when we die, you're probably doing it wrong

Rule #6: If Jesus seems more like a headmaster giving orders than like a comedian cracking jokes, you're probably doing it wrong.

Rule #7: If you feel perfectly confident and untroubled while expounding the parable, you're probably doing it wrong.

Rule #8: If your sermon on the parable leaves people with nothing to look forward to and nothing to hope for, you're probably doing it wrong.

Rule #9: Now go back and repeat Rule 3 (because every preacher forgets this at least once in every sermon).

Rule #10: Finally, if you've preached a lousy sermon, just remember: as long as the parable was read aloud before you started, it won't be a total loss.

I'm serious about that last point too. It's often struck me how even after the most soul-crushing exposition of a parable (my own included), people go away afterwards thinking about what was read before the sermon. It's a testament to the extraordinary power of Jesus' teaching that it cannot be defeated even by its most dedicated expositors.


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