Monday 30 June 2014

The joy of teaching primary sources

For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one's own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis' brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine's Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

I've also come to believe in the importance of getting students to read whole books, not just excerpts. Anthologies of primary sources have their place. But after using them in some of my classes, I began to notice that the principles of selection tend to obviate the educational benefits of primary sources. The contemporary anthologist will select a passage on atonement from Athanasius, since we all know already that "atonement" is a noteworthy topic. But anthologists will omit all that weird stuff in Athanasius about the martyrs; and they will certainly omit all that offensive stuff about the Jews. Yet it is precisely in the weird and the offensive material that students have the opportunity to observe the author's unspoken assumptions at work. And it is by struggling to account for the author's blind spots that students achieve – or at least have the opportunity to achieve – a certain critical distance from their own unspoken assumptions.

So anyway, this is what I'm most looking forward to in the coming semester. My christology class will be working its way through Irenaeus' Against Heresies Book 3, followed by Athanasius' On the Incarnation. My week-long intensive class on theological anthropology will be discussing Basil's homilies On Human Nature. And my first-year ecclesiology class will be working its way through Bonhoeffer's Life Together. And I'm already looking forward to reading through Julian of Norwich with a class on Christian spirituality next year.

When I first got interested in theology many years ago, it was the concepts and ideas that meant the most to me. Nowadays it's these voices from the past that have come to mean the most to me. And these days the books I love most are not just my own personal favourites, but the ones that are the most teachable. It is the books that foster a community of learning and inquiry in the classroom that I love best, and that keep me enthusiastic about the benefits of theological education.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Handing them over to Satan: two cautionary tales

Theologically I am committed to a pretty deep pessimism about human nature. Original sin and all that. The belief that history is not headed anywhere and does not mean anything; that things do not generally improve; that the real problems of life are intractable and almost completely resistant to our flimsy toys of reason, education, therapy, and whatnot; that the only thing really worth hoping for is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Temperamentally, though, I am an outrageous optimist. I won't be lying if I tell you that I have probably felt optimistic about every human being I ever met. I once knew a mad and rather menacing individual who told me with a scary gleam in his eye that he had been investigated for several murders – and all I could think was that I liked his roguish sense of humour. I was once mugged by a ruthless fellow who threatened me and took a fifty dollar bill right out of my hand – and the whole time I just kept thinking to myself: he is probably doing it to buy his child a birthday present. I have shaken hands with professors of French philosophy, and have been quite willing to believe that even they are not altogether devoid of some residual spark of human goodness.

I say this only to make it perfectly clear that I am not easily angered or disillusioned with my fellow man. He does not disappoint me, because I expect so little of human nature to begin with; he does not disgust me, because I assume the best of him and am always willing to give him another chance. Nobody is beyond redemption, and nobody is above the need for it. My boundless confidence in these two truths makes me, as a rule, quite agreeable.

And yet. There is a chilling scene in the New Testament where St Paul casually mentions that he has handed a couple of his associates over to Satan (1 Tim 1.20). He instructs the Corinthians to hand a certain troublesome parishioner over to Satan too (1 Cor 5.5). That's at least three people who were entrusted to Satan's diabolical care. It's a serious business to deliver a fellow human being into the welcoming arms of the Prince of Darkness. I myself have done it on occasion – on two occasions, to be precise – and it's no laughing matter, believe me. It kind of enervates the spirit, even though when the moment strikes there's no avoiding it.

The first time I ever had to do it was some years ago. A Christian minister, an acquaintance of mine, was preaching a sermon against family values. I cannot recall exactly what he disliked about families, but the gist of it was that he admired them about as much as kidney stones. I guess the family was one of those things that had to be squeezed out before this preacher's Marxiose-revolutionist-liberationary dreams could all come true. To explain the problem with families, the preacher embarked on a very entertaining satirical description of a certain conservative middle-class suburb. He was rather funny, pouring scorn on all the spiritual emptiness and hypocrisy of suburban life. He pronounced the name of the suburb with a kind of sneer that got funnier every time he did it. He had the congregation rolling, positively LOLing, with merriment. He persuaded everybody that this particular suburb was a spectacle worthy of all imaginable ridicule.

The only trouble, reader, was that it was my suburb. I take my shoes off there every night. My dog takes his walks there. My children serve their school detentions there. Some of my dearest neighbours live there. They knock on my door when they need to borrow milk or eggs. They feed the fish when we are away. To the preacher it looked like a funny old-fashioned conservative-voting suburb, but to me it is a community. To me it is people, and I'm pretty fond of them too. If the preacher had spent fifteen hilarious minutes making fun of me, I would have laughed with everyone else and forgotten all about it. But he made fun of my neighbourhood. 

I knew what I had to do. Silently I turned the light of my countenance away from him. Solemnly I consigned him to a spiritual darkness. I handed him over to Satan, hoping that one day he would repent and I would be able to look at him once more.

The second time it happened was even worse. I cannot call the incident to mind without feeling deeply shaken. Even now I can scarcely bring myself to speak of it. It all began innocently enough. A conversation with a learned gentleman about the theatre. Not just any learned gentleman either but a real scholar, an author of books, and not just any books either, but big ones. We exchanged pleasantries about the history of theatre. We chatted about the Greeks. We were enjoying ourselves. Inevitably the conversation turned to Shakespeare. I professed a particular devotion to The Tempest, explaining that I admire the way that play lays bare the essential machinery of the theatre. It is like the Eiffel Tower, I said, a building that exposes to plain view all the engineering that other buildings try to conceal. The Tempest is the quintessential play about plays; it is not so much a play as the blueprint of all drama, the pure Platonic form of Shakespearean comedy, history, and tragedy.

Believe me, reader, I had more to say on this subject of the The Tempest. I was only getting started. Comparisons to eternal forms are only the beginning. You should hear me when I really get going. But at exactly this moment the learned gentleman did a curious thing. He wrinkled his nose. He kind of sniffed in a sniffy sort of way, if you know what I mean. He said, with an air of infinite detachment and world-weariness, "Shakespeare? Ah but have you read the Arabic dramatists? Not to mention the German dramatists. And how much, tell me, how much do you know about the Chinese theatre? Not just the contemporary stuff but the history of it, the history I say. Ah, Chinese drama! Now there's something worth knowing about! You see, my dear fellow," he continued, regarding me with the profoundest boredom in the world, "you see, Shakespeare can't possibly mean anything until you've read everything else. You need to see him in his proper context. Otherwise there's no point saying you love Shakespeare. It's nothing but British imperialism, that's what it is. It's nothing more than –" he cleared his throat in a decisive, disgusted sort of way – "ignorant prejudice."

Very carefully I located the parts of myself from the floor and gingerly began piecing them back together. I wanted to get to the door as quickly as possible but I also had to tread very carefully in case the earth opened up underneath us. I remember the time, as a boy, when I had first experimented with swearing. I whispered the four-letter words reverentially and waited for lightning to strike or for angels to appear in the sky or for the world to collapse in on itself. I felt the same way now, more or less. A fellow human being, made in God's own image, had just described the love of Shakespeare as – it pains me to have to repeat the words – imperialism; ignorance; prejudice.

Now personally I don't mind being insulted. I am as imperial and as ignorant and as prejudicial as the next person. Insult me as much as you like, I deserve every syllable! But my learned interlocutor had not wanted to insult me; that was clear. It was against Shakespeare – which is to say, against Humanity – that his scorn was directed.

If there had been dust on my feet I would have shaken it off. I wanted nothing more to do with this man. I had nothing else to say to him. I had no good news to tell him. He wanted to see Shakespeare "in context": well, let him keep his context, and I will keep Shakespeare! He wanted to peer down his aristocratic nose at the entire human race: well, let him keep his higher vantage point, but I will stick with the human race! Though I loved this person, though I had always respected him, though I admired his learning in the non-Shakespearean departments, I resolved that I would never speak to him again. I would do nothing else for him except to pray for his soul. In a nutshell, I handed him over to Satan so that he might learn not to blaspheme.

Now I know what the moralists out there are thinking. That I should stop handing people over to Satan. That I should forgive and forget. Shake hands and make a fresh start and all that. Leave Beelzebub out of it. Hear me, you moralisers! Listen to me! If you insult me, slander me, criticise my haircut and spit in my eye, I will forgive you quick as a flash. If you pounce on me out of the shadows and take my fifty dollar bill, I will never give it a second thought. If you tell me you might possibly have murdered a few people I will still go on believing the best of you. But don't come to me with malicious words about my neighbourhood! Don't bring me your "contexts" for understanding Shakespeare! For when you do these things, you set yourself above the common human lot. And then you force my hand: for I am all on the side of humanity. If the gods themselves took your side, I would still be unmoved. I would stand right here – with Shakespeare; with humanity; with my neighbours – against all gods.

Monday 16 June 2014

Next week: Craig Keen in Sydney

Next week in Sydney we're having a symposium around the work of Craig Keen. Craig will be presenting some new material, and a line-up of scholars from Australia and abroad will be presenting on various aspects of his work. My paper will be an attempted defence of divine impassibility, titled "Did Jesus Change God? Incarnation and Divine Impassibility".

If you've never read any of Craig Keen's work, check out his two books, The Transgression of the Integrity of God and After Crucifixion.

If you'd like to join us, you've got till the end of the week to register.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Review of Robert Clark, Mr White's Confession

The next in my spate of Amazon reviews is a short review of Robert Clark's Augustinian-noir detective novel, Mr White's Confession.

Monday 9 June 2014

I’m-running-out-of-d's doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Global Handwashing Day – flagged up on May 5, celebrated on October 15, but surely it ought to be June 15. Cheers, Pilate!

Speaking of Pilate, here is Pilate speaking, defending the execution of Jesus of Nazareth: “In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.” Oops, my mistake – that’s Al Mohler. Sorry, Pilate.

Encore: Did you hear about the evangelical church in London that wouldn’t allow a Pilates class to hire its church hall? A spokesman said: “If yoga classes are incompatible with Christianity, Pilates classes are the work of the devil.” (Did this actually happen? Not that I am aware. But you wouldn’t be the least bit surprise if it did, would you?)

Culturally and litigiously speaking, the best defence is the taking of offence.

“After many days [weeks, months] of prayerful consideration …” Why the “prayerful” in such introductions to various ecclesial documents and declarations? Like the spokesperson might say, “After prayerless consideration …”? The word is descriptively redundant. The only work it does is rhetorical, conveying a sense of piety, gravitas, perhaps inspiration, while invariably anticipating a baleful conclusion. Of course, as a minster (i.e., a religious professional), I have deployed it myself, but, frankly, it’s eyewash.

It’s “Mother’s Day” (the American paganisation of Mothering Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent). What an ironic end to the week here in the UK, where the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has signalled that women soldiers will soon be allowed to serve in front-line combat roles. As the old Virginia Slims ad put it: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

A sunset, a storm at sea, a starry night – the wonder! Yet also a demonstration of how myopic we are. The mystery of the world is surely its marvellous mundanity.

The accusation of “political correctness” now does double-duty as “spoiler alert”, for it’s a sure sign that the accuser is intellectually lazy and desperate, and that his ensuing screed will be hopelessly hidebound and smug.

Have you ever been to those church-leader breakfasts where you’d think that the disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to bray”?

Sometimes I wonder if Alzheimer’s disease might be God’s way of shaming the rational and autonomous, of telling us (pace the good bishop of Hippo) that intellect and memory aren’t all they’re cut out to be, that the “man come of age” is but a callow youth, and that a state of confusion and helplessness is both the appropriate and the inevitable posture of humanity coram Deo.

I think the thing I love most about theology is the audacious impertinence of its ridiculousness.

The ESV Bible originates in the USA, so you don’t cross it very often in the UK. In fact – stupid me – I wasn’t aware that the acronym stands for Election – Salvation – Vengeance. And κρίνα in Matthew 6:28 – I’m surprised it isn’t translated as “tulips”.

Did you know that anti-Russian protesters in Kiev have been displaying the Confederate flag? So hardcore southerners were right when they cried, “The South will rise again!” Only, where the hell is Ukraine? A few hundred miles northwest of Georgia, in fact.

Serious atheism is faith cleaning the sanctuary of dust and clutter.

“There are no atheists in foxholes” goes the old aphorism. Arguably there are no Christians there either.

The Lord’s Supper – comfort eating or C-rations?

I have come to appreciate the expression “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour”. It’s useful as a kind of theological spoiler alert of someone who is likely to have made an idol of their own religious experience.

On the other hand, the embarrassment of liberals at saying “I love Jesus” is a great pity. Jesus loves me, and I love Jesus. The stalking tiger, the mother hen, the monstrous crucified, the risen striding stranger? Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? (Augustine). But love it is, so there.

The perspective of contemporary counselling on Jesus in the wilderness, the hills, and the garden: me-time.

How Jesus signs off his emails:

Today (3 June) the i reports that “Research from the University of Illinois has found that people are more afraid of a hurricane with a male name than a female one and therefore the female-named storms have more casualties.” I guess that means Maisy, Bambi, and Peppa will be scratched from the shortlist of the World Meteorological Organization, and we can soon expect Hurricanes Darth, Damian, and (Katrina’s revenge) Dubya.

Palindrone: an unbrained hotaircraft programmed to fire a political missile that goes forwards, then backwards, and explodes in the face of the speaker who launched it.

What is heaven like? A lot like jail: no rich people.

The fear of Lord’s is the beginning of Wisden.

I give up. Peer pressure has finally got to me. Social networking, here I come. I, who thought a # was a cannabis label, am joining – what are they called? Oh yes: Witter and Faecebook.

Friday 6 June 2014

Review of Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology

Another Amazon review, this time of Simon Chan's smashing new book on Grassroots Asian Theology (IVP, 2014). Simon Chan teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

Sunday 1 June 2014

A wedding homily

by Kim Fabricius, from a recent wedding in Swansea [names changed]

First, an accent check: How many soldiers here have served in Iraq or Afghanistan? Okay, so you’ll be used to me speaking American. American soldiers – they’re the ones who put the “oops” in “troops” and the “miss” in “missile”.

Doug – soldier; Hester – teacher. I’ve married soldiers, and I’ve married teachers, but never the one to the other. It’s an arrangement with promise. Doug, for instance, will be used to being under authority, and obeying orders even when they’re daft; and Hester will be used to a person in uniform behaving badly, and muttering annoying comments under his breath. Hester, just remember that a husband is like a fine malt whisky: it will take him years to mature – though I wouldn’t get your hopes up for more than a 12-year-old. Doug, I’m afraid for you I have no advice whatsoever.

This is a real, very personal pleasure for me. Of Hester – well, let’s just say of Hester I am very fond. And since she spent a year in the US, even if in the Windy City (Chicago) rather than the Big Apple, add to fond a kind of bond. That’s today’s icing on the cake of preaching at any wedding. I’m now a retired minister, but I’ve been taking fewer and fewer weddings for years. And not just because we now live in a post-Christian society, but also because – well, why get married in a church when you can do it at a fashionable hotel, an atmospheric castle, or a sunny beach abroad?

Yet even in our aggressively secular society, the rumour of God persists. While celebrity is now regarded as a career option, wealth a vocation, and cosmetic surgery the fountain of youth, nevertheless, in the wake of this ubiquitous cultural banality, some silly people will go on asking, “Is that it?” – and sense that no, it isn’t, sense that there is something more, often because in times of great joy or deep trauma – at the birth of a child (or grandchild) perhaps, so outrageously loved, or after a dreadful diagnosis, so irretrievably wrenching – at such times some people hear reality whisper in their ears. Christians suggest that through such “signals of transcendence” God is trying to get in touch with us. And if a couple has been so touched, and they decide that cohabitation isn’t quite commitment enough, that they want to get married but feel that a civil ceremony, wherever, lacks depth, mystery, ultimacy, that “congratulations” doesn’t quite cut it, that a blessing is essential, then they may ask for a church wedding, at which the minister will begin by saying, “We are gathered here in the presence of God …”

Yes, today we are “doing” God, which is quite a counter-cultural thing to do. How so? Well, for example, the church’s suggestion that while “following your feelings” may be the gospel of Hello magazine, a more superficial take on a serious relationship is hard to imagine. The suggestion that, in marriage, so-called “lifestyle choices” and even careers should recede in importance, while raising children should become a sacred possibility. And the suggestion that marrying the “right person” is actually a rather silly idea, as is demonstrated by how often Mr. or Mrs. Right so often becomes Mr. or Mrs. Wrong, and is replaced by Mr. or Mrs. Even-Righter.

Why do people actually get married? In her novel The Other Side of You, Salley Vickers makes an observation about an “elementary … equation [that] is rarely recognised. The reasons for choice of partner are obscure and what passes for love is generally a decidedly mixed bag … [of] lust, anxiety, lack of self-worth … cowardice, fear, recklessness, … the need to control.… There are other, happier ingredients, though these finer impulses can wreak more havoc than the more blackguardly ones.”

A cynical take on marriage? Rather, I think, a candid and accurate assessment. And that’s why it’s not the chemistry, or even the “heart” but, finally, the promises that a couple make that are the crucial factor in a marriage – promises made hoping to God that we may keep them. For, in ourselves, how can we possibly know what promising lifelong fidelity means, not just for bad but for worse? I mean, it’s all very well to assume we will be faithful through flu, flab, and flatulence, but what about MS or Alzheimer’s, or unemployment shattering our precious plans, or our pensions turning to dust? How can we make such radical promises as “until we are parted by death” when we are young, healthy, and earning?

And the honest answer is: we can make them only if we are the kind of people who can be held to the promises we make when we do not really know what we are in for when we make them. Only if – only if Doug and Hester see that love is learned even more than it is given, that love is a skill, a practice; see that love is more the result of a good relationship than the cause of it; see that marriage itself creates the context in which they may discover what love really is and, in the process, who they really are. Only if they see that an enduring relationship is built on the virtues of attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and, above all, sacrifice and forgiveness, each giving more than they expect to receive. Only if they don’t get so wrapped up in themselves that they lose touch with you, their friends, the ones who will keep them sane. And only if the resources on which they draw come not only from within and without, but from above, from the God we are “doing” today.

Finally, that Salley Vickers passage – here is how it ends: “Seldom, very seldom, do two people unite [in marriage] through sheer reciprocal joy in the other’s being.” Hester, Doug, my prayer for you is that you will experience this “sheer reciprocal joy”, and experience it ever more deeply as you grow old together, such that, as wonderful as this day is, it will turn out to be the day in your marriage that you loved each other least.


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