Thursday 29 May 2014

Review of Plato's complete works

And another one! Here's my Amazon review of the beautiful big Hackett edition of Plato's complete works.

Saturday 24 May 2014

In which the boy gathers leaves

We had all been cooped up too long inside because of the rain. The children were growing restless. I was in the armchair by the window watching my son thump his sister over the head for the ninth time with a big red picture book. My spirits had sunk into a wet-weather torpor, which is why I had not tried to stop him the previous eight times. Thwack! He did it again. Again she cried out in protest: lashed out to hit him: retreat: running footsteps: maniacal laughter. You could see from the way my daughter clenched her fists that chaos was about to consume us all.

Wearily I roused myself, remembering my solemn duty to maintain a semblance of moral order in this domestic menagerie. I stood. I strode down the corridor, pausing in front of a mirror to check that my appearance was sufficiently dignified. The Representative of Moral Order can scarce afford to let himself go. I entered my son's bedroom. He was not there. I slid back the wardrobe door. There he was, crouching in the shadows of hung clothes, clutching his red picture book and grinning like a gangster. My daughter came into the room after me. Thwack! Quick as lightning the boy had leapt out from his hiding place and clobbered her again. She shrieked. I knew that thunder was crashing somewhere in the distance on this dark globe.

I apprehended the offender before he could make his getaway. I knelt down among the ruins of lego to look him squarely in the eye. He looked back at me the way James Cagney looks at the policeman in one of those old movies. I cannot remember whether he had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. It was not his fault. The boy was born in sin: his father and his father's father were sinners before him: and besides, it had been raining for three days straight. Very sternly I spoke to the little outlaw. "Son," I told him, "son, I need your help." I saw a glimmer of virtue returning to his eyes. "I've got a very important job for you. Do you think you can do it? Or..." – I glanced around the room – "shall I find someone else?"

He stood up very straight, a tiny man ready to make his mark upon the world. He promised: "I can do it." I looked him up and down with a sceptical eye. He implored me: "I can do it."

Take it from me, reader, your six-year-old boy is no different from a grown man in this respect, that he loves nothing better than having a job to do. It makes him feel very grand. It takes his attention away from other things, like perpetrating random acts of violence with a picture book.

"What I need, my boy," I told him, standing up straight and tall and hitching my thumbs into my trousers, "what I need is leaves."

"Ah!" said the boy, all interest. "Leaves!" He put down the picture book. He looked up at me with new respect. 

"Here's what I need you to do," I told him. "First, put on your gumboots. Second, get your umbrella. Third – are you still listening?" His eyes begged me to continue. "Third, I want you to go outside and collect thirty different varieties of leaves. Thirty – each one different from all the others – do you understand me?"

The boy did not answer because he was already halfway down the hall, hopping wildly on one foot and pulling a boot on to the other. Before I could even congratulate myself on a job well done, the little chap had seized his umbrella and flung himself out into the yard where he set at once to work scavenging among the shrubs and trees. It's exactly as I told you, reader: a boy likes to be gainfully employed.

Forty minutes later he was still bringing in the leaves. This was no shoddy workmanship either. No cracked leaves, no dry or haggard specimens, no duplicates slyly passed off as different species. Each leaf was a work of art, distinct in shape and vivid in colour, lovingly plucked and brought inside and arranged on the table, all glistening with rain. My son set them out neatly, side by side, sorted according to the principles of his own mysterious taxonomy. When he arrived with the fifteenth leaf and laid it down with all the rest, I complimented him on the collection. I confessed that I never even knew there were so many varieties of leaves in our garden, or that they were so beautiful. He hurried out again into the rain and was gone a long time.

It was nearly dark when the boy came back inside. He stamped mud across the floor and flung down the wet umbrella. He stood there glowering at me with a thundercloud in his face. I was about to inquire if something was the matter when he blurted out, "Thirty! We don't even have thirty different kinds!" He crossed his arms and turned away from me, shaking with rage.

I tried to reassure him. "It doesn't matter. How about twenty? Twenty leaves will be enough. Twenty will be fine, just fine."

"We don't have twenty," the boy snapped back. "Fifteen! There are only fifteen types of leaves. How dare you tell me to get thirty. It's impossible."

There would be no more leaf-gathering today, anyone could see that. Now that he had declared a strike, there would be no way under heaven of getting my disgruntled labourer back on the job. Not that it had been a complete failure. It had kept him occupied for the better part of an hour. It had dramatically reduced the incidents of violent crime in our living room. But now I had other problems to deal with.

"I'm sorry," I said. "Honestly, fifteen leaves will be plenty. I really don't need thirty."

"Don't need them!" he spat the words back at me like a curse. "Don't need them!" Like cursing a second time.

"You have done a good job," I said. "It is very good. The leaves are excellent." We stood there together looking at them spread out across the table.

But my son was no longer pleased with the leaves. He was in one of those glass-half-empty kinds of moods. What I saw were fifteen flawless, glistening leaves, lovingly gathered and assembled. What I saw was a job well done. What he saw was the other fifteen leaves, fifteen missing leaves, fifteen impossible-to-acquire specimens. What he saw was a job half-done. And I don't think I have to tell you that it made him very, very cranky.

I reached out a fatherly hand to comfort the boy, but he lurched away from me. In a single motion, swift as death, he swept up all the leaves into his arms and began to crush them. An involuntary cry escaped my lips: the leaves! But there was no stopping him now. He tore them, smashed them, pulverised them, scattered them across the floor like so many dead leaves.

It was, in short, a tantrum against all the glory of nature. Like any boy in such a mood, he would have destroyed the universe, and more besides, if he had had it in his power. I turned and left the room, whistling a Frank Sinatra tune as though nothing had happened. Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. I felt for the boy, reader, please believe me when I say that. But the Representative of Moral Order mustn't encourage tantrums against the glory of nature. No good will come of it.

I picked up a comic book and sat down to read it, still whistling from time to time. Fill my life with song and let me sing forevermore. Minutes passed. I wondered if the boy was ok. No sign of him anywhere. The night train rattled by. I turned the pages of the comic book.

Then I heard a sort of rustling. I looked up. Before me stood the boy. He stood there facing me, arms by his side, saying nothing. He waited for my full attention. Neither of us said a word. I closed the comic book and put it down. He raised a hand and I saw that it held one of the leaves. One last big perfect maple leaf that had not been destroyed. I smiled at the sight of it. I was glad one leaf had been saved. I was pleased that all his hard work had not been for nothing. For one rash misguided second I thought he had brought it as a peace offering.

That was before the child calmly placed the maple leaf into his mouth and ate it. His gaze was fixed on me as though by nails. His face was as blank as stone as he slowly moved his little jaws, chewing the leaf over and over, crushing the lovely organism between his molars. When he had done this for what seemed a very long time, he turned and left the room.

I went into the kitchen just in time to see a small boy leaning over the railing outside and spitting bits of leaf into the garden.

Five minutes later he had forgiven me and we were building lego houses on the floor. We never spoke of the leaves again.

But today, when nobody was looking, I went out in the yard and plucked a single green leaf from the maple tree. Autumn is here and there are only a few green leaves left. I wanted to get one before they are all gone, before they have all turned red and fallen to the cold earth. I held the perfect leaf up to the light, studying the tiny veins. I turned it over in my hand. Then I raised it, very tentatively, and put it in my mouth. I bit down once, winced, and spat. It was just as I thought. Like eating poison. I considered the way the boy had chewed it over and over, eyes hard, face like stone. The taste of maple leaf lingered in my mouth. I thought: Shakespeare: Dostoevsky: the Bible: it is all true. And my heart thrilled with love and fear.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Social implications of the doctrine of original sin

I've been teaching the doctrine of original sin in my theological anthropology class this semester. Here's a table I created to try to explain the social implications of the doctrine of original sin. Obviously this isn't meant to be a nuanced scholarly presentation, just a rough and ready tool for teaching purposes. The table presents the doctrine of original sin as the foundation of a Christian understanding of society, as opposed to the two generic modern "heresies" of gnosticism and romanticism.



Nature is…
Split into good and evil
Pure and innocent
Created yet fallen
Human nature is…
Already perfect
Not perfectible
Salvation is…
Victory of the good side of society over the evil side
The spontaneous flourishing of human nature
Never fully present until the last judgment
The problem with society is…
The presence of evil forces or evil structures that need to be eradicated
Laws, institutions, and social constraints that need to be abolished or transcended
The fallenness of every aspect of society. All relationships, groups, institutions, and structures are ruled by a fallen nature.
Education is…
About enlisting children in a pre-defined struggle against evil. Education is a form of propaganda.
A threat to the child’s spontaneous freedom and creativity. Education is the root of all evil.
Necessary to form children in virtue, and to help them manage their own fallen tendencies
Sex should be…
Either rejected (as evil) or worshipped (as a god)
Allowed to flourish spontaneously without any social constraints. Repression vs emancipation.
Managed and disciplined within covenantal relationships which are protected by various laws and customs
National and ethnic identity should be…
Protected and purified at any cost, as a bulwark against external evils
Transcended and obliterated. There is no ethnicity in the state of nature.
Respected in spite of its imperfections, and valued for the sake of higher goods
The role of government is…
To eradicate evil and to make the world good; to pursue absolute justice in order to usher in a utopia
Invalid, since it interferes with the state of nature. Grass-roots movements are a better path to justice.
To seek approximate justice; to provide law and order so that sinful tendencies are restrained
The purpose of life is…
To be true to your vision of a better world.
To be true to yourself.
To be true to something beyond this world.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Review: Early Arabic Contributions to Trinitarian Theology

There comes a time in every man's life when he decides to post his first review on Amazon. Here's mine – a review of Thomas W. Ricks, Early Arabic Contributions to Trinitarian Theology, from the new dissertation series by Fortress Press. It's such a good book, I've even decided to add a lecture to my Trinity class based on this material. It'll be a nice change from all those Cappadocians and North Africans and whatnot.

Thursday 15 May 2014

D’oh doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Holy Week Announcements
  • On the notice board of St. George’s Church for English Expats in Sydney: “Come Join Us for Pom Sunday!”
  • On the digital billboard of Lakeside Church: “Don’t Miss Berluti Thursday! Raffle-winner gets to polish Pastor Joel’s Rapiécés Reprisés.”
  • Spelled out in sparkling lights above Crystal Cathedral on Good Friday: “CLOSED”.
  • Easter opening versicle/response at St. Thomas’ Progressive Church, Wherever: Minister: “The Lord is risen!” People: “In a manner of speaking!”
Translation of John 1:14 for visceral reflection on Holy Saturday: “And the Word became flesh and smelt among us.”

O the Wrights of spring! On Friday April 11th, to launch Holy Week, ABC Religion and Ethics posted an article on Palm Sunday by Tom Wright, followed on Monday the 14th by Wright’s Palm Sunday sermon, entitled “Wright on, Wright on in majesty!” (just kidding – about the title). Then on Maundy Thursday, yep, Wright again – an article on the resurrection. On Good Friday, Jim West removed ABC editor Scott Stephens from his Cadbury Creme Egg list.

I just woke up. I’d been dreaming I was re-reading Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God. It was the best year’s sleep I’ve ever had. In an interview, Campbell now admits that his book “is possibly a little too long.” No worries: Paul, on reflection, said the same thing about his letter to the Romans: “In the future, Tertius, remind me: postcards only.”

Terrific juxtaposition of titles in the “New Books from Bloomsbury” block in the April 11th Church Times: Pope Francis’ My Door Is Always Open is flanked by Julia Ogilvy’s Women in Waiting. You couldn’t make it up.

The irony of someone saying “One mustn’t speak ill of the dead” is that they just have.

When I see a Jesus Fish on a car, I always wonder whether the content does what it says on the steel.

I fully endorse the principle of “spoiling the Egyptians” – which the Israelites themselves sometimes honoured more in the breach than the observance. Felis silvestris catus, for instance: there is not a single mention of moggies in the Hebrew Bible. My own theory is that Moses, in Sukkot, did try to herd some cats among the caravans, but they laughed, “And you’re heading into the wilderness? Hey, the asshole thinks we’re dogs.” Btw, dogs are mentioned over 40 times in the OT – almost always with disgust and contempt, the filthy beasts. Bad news for canophilist inerrantists.

In classical times, the Areopagus – that is, Mars Hill – “functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases…. In an unusual development, [it] acquired a new function in the 4th century BC, investigating corruption” (Wikipedia). In an ironic development, it acquired a newer function still in the early 21st century, in Seattle – corruption investigated.

According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, 35% of people say they are “very proud” to be British, while 47% say they are “somewhat proud”. In the US, according to a 2013 Gallop poll, the figures are ever-so slightly different: 57% of people say they are “extremely proud” to be American, while 28% say they are “very proud”. Observe that Americans don’t do “somewhat proud”, while the British don’t do “extremely proud”. Man, I love living in this crappy little goddam country! Btw, the missing 15% in the Gallop poll – by now they’re all in prison. After all, 25% of the world’s prison population is incarcerated in the US, and the US has a higher rate of incarceration (top of the league table) than North Korea – interestingly, a state equally well known for its pathological patriotism. As for execution …

If sugar is the new tobacco, is it okay to smoke artificial sweeteners?

According to Isaiah 45:1, “The Lord has chosen Cyrus to be the Messiah.” But this is not true. Cyrus is not the Messiah – she is just a very naughty girl. Justinus is the Messiah.

For the April 21-23 Southern Baptist Convention “Summit” on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality”, I offered to do a free stand-up gig, but I was told they’d already booked Michael Brown.

confused, confusion: referring to the state of mind induced in some Christians by other Christians who address biblical texts and controversial theological issues with critical questions asked in good faith. As in Andrew Walker (Director of Policy Studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), speaking about Matthew Vines on the publication of God and the Gay Christian: “All that needs to happen for Vines to claim victory [sic] is for his readers to be confused and not necessarily convinced of his argument”. Cf. E. Stanley Frazier (Pastor of St. James Methodist Church, Montgomery, Alabama), speaking about Martin Luther King during the Montgomery bus boycott: “The job of the minister … is … not to bring about confusion by getting tangled up in transitory social measures.”

Is episcopacy the esse of the church? Don’t be silly. Is episcopacy the bene esse of the church? Contingently, conceivably. But insofar as bishops are becoming the church’s CEOs, episcopacy is the male esse of the church.

Well gee, so my favourite American public intellectual and Mad Hatter Mom has been teaing off again, this time at the rapture-ready convention of the NRA. Exercising what you might call her Bowl and Towelhead Ministry, Sarah Palin proclaimed that “If I were in charge, [our enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” A bold and imaginative moral and sacramental theology indeed. One anticipates a foreward by Mrs. Palin in the next edition of William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, perhaps in the form of a midrash on Romans 6:1-11.

The more I pray, the more I think we have mis-tensed the voice of the verb – it should be passive, not active: I do not pray, rather I am prayed. And the voice of prayer itself, it is not even mine, it is the Spirit’s (Romans 8:26). Learning to pray is not a matter of articulation but of participation in God’s groaning (στεναγμός).

Persistence in prayer is absolutely essential (cf. Luke 18:1-8), especially when you see no signs of your petition being answered. For example: “God bless America.”

Inexcusably belatedly, I have just finished reading James Cones’ extremely important Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991). In it there is a chapter entitled “Nothing But Men”, where Cone addresses both the “sexism” (the acceptance of black male privilege) and the “classism” (the absence of a critique of capitalism) in both leaders. Cone suggests that these explicable yet culpable shortcomings should disabuse us of the notion that Martin and Malcolm might be saints. From which I extrapolate: we only truly honour “saints” when, with our praise, we acknowledge their mistakes, errors of judgement, and sins – as, surely, the saintly themselves would have us do.

Paul said he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel. He never said he wasn’t ashamed of the church. In fact, at times he obviously was. Me too. In fact, I am most ashamed of the church when the church isn’t ashamed of itself. Usually over matters of basic human decency.

In The Nonviolent God (2013), J. Denny Weaver follows the suggestion of immunologist Angela Horn Montel that we change “the image of the interaction of host and pathogen away from violence and towards images such as ‘dance between microbe and host’.” Now admittedly the phrase “bravely battling the Big C” is an appalling cliché, but somehow “doing an elegant paso doble with stage 4 prostate cancer” doesn’t quite either work, does it?

Yes, in the Bible God can be seriously violent. But it could be worse. For example, the Flood: the waters must have frozen up in the Arctic, so the Inuits caught a break. Or the herem, say, in the war with the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:1ff): men, women, children, and babies; cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys; but, hey, a free pass for the goats and chickens. And the death penalty for false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:20) – well, apart from a comprehensive blitz by IRS-CI, how else are you gonna reduce the number of mega-churches? As for rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21:18ff.) …

Of course in the UK, we live in a post-Christian society – I mean, insofar as the story of Jesus no longer shapes our national sense of identity and purpose (telos). It still does in the US perhaps, though the narrative is – and always has been – thoroughly bowdlerised. Missiologically, therefore, I think the UK is much better positioned than the US for the canny Christ to spring some surprises.

Those who can, do; those who may, love.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Church attendance manual (2): singing

Each Christian tradition has its own special attitudes towards singing. When attending a service, it is vital to understand these attitudes in order to avoid the dreaded liturgical faux pas. Mistakes where singing are concerned can incur grave ecclesiastical penalties. The visitor who sings like a Pentecostal during a Presbyterian service will run the risk of being escorted from the premises and given a referral to a clinical psychologist; while the one who sings like a Presbyterian during a Pentecostal service will be regarded as an infidel and may therefore become a target of Friendship Evangelism; this can lead in turn to ten pin bowling, dating, and then eventually marriage and who knows what else. Such misfortunes can easily be avoided if one takes care to observe the following liturgical rules:

What to do: Let your singing be tempered by a manly soberness and austerity, as if you were respectfully singing somebody else's national anthem. Let your lips remain thin, your body erect, and your hands at your side where everyone can see them.
What to think: As a matter of fact, I'm not 100% certain of the doctrinal correctness of this verse. I'd better mumble the words just to be on the safe side.

What to do: Let your depth of feeling be inversely proportional to the depth of meaning in the lyrics. Too much meaning = boring. "I'm coming back to the heart of worship" = very intense. The singing must also be done with the aid of an exceptionally talented band.
What to think: I'm not thinking, I'm worshipping.

What to do: You should sing all the Pentecostal songs, but sing them as if you were a Presbyterian. This means you get the best of both worlds: you can sing songs that don't mean anything while feeling nothing at the same time.
What to think: I thank you, God, that we are not like those Pentecostals. (Especially the part about the talented band.)

Roman Catholic
What to do: Don't even bother opening the hymn book.
What to think: Hymns? You can't expect Vatican II to be right about everything.

What to do: Same as above.
What to think: On second thought, I should probably open my hymn book.

What to do: Same as above. Except that there is no hymn book. And no hymns really.
What to think: Is this another hymn? I wish there were some kind of hymn book. I guess I'll just keep belting out "Kyrie eleison" every twenty seconds and hope for the best.

African American church
What to do: Sing! Sing like your life depended on it! Sing till your heart cracks and your eyeballs sweat and your great grandmother taps her bony foot in the grave.
What to think: Anything worth singing once is worth singing forty times over. 

What to do: Same as above. (Just kidding. Don't even think about it.)
What to think: Think whatever you like, as long as you keep it very Zen.

Fresh Expressions
What to think: Singing is a culturally relative and outdated form of religious expression. We don't do that kind of thing around here because we wouldn't want to create unnecessary obstacles or to make anybody feel uncomfortable.
What to do: Put the latest Matt Redman album on your iPod and listen to it very prayerfully on the way to church. But never tell a soul. (If anyone asks, tell them it's U2.)

What to think: Same as above.
What to do: Step 1: Change the lyrics to remove all references to God. Step 2: Resume singing like a Presbyterian.


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