Wednesday 29 October 2014

Desperado doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Imagine a book of theology in which, among your marginal notes, LOL outnumbers NB. Pray for the conversion of Terry Eagleton.

What do you call a novel with a clear moral message? Propaganda.

Good tragedy will cast you down, but it won’t make you despair; good comedy will make you laugh, but it won’t cheer you up.

Four words of Jesus that many Christians don’t seem to get: “εγω δε λεγω υμιν …” (in the Antitheses, Matthew 5:21ff.).

—“What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?”
—Peter answered, “Is this another one of your trick questions?”
—Jesus said, “No, straight up.”
—Peter said, risked, “Hmm… Don’t you mean ‘Who is my neighbour?’”
—Godsmacked, Jesus said, “Er, yes, I guess I do.” (Mark 8:29ff., Original Autograph)

Some Pharisees and Herodians said to Jesus, “Tell us: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus knew it was a trick question and replied, “Why are you playing mind games with me? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” They handed him one. He flipped it, and said, “Heads I win, tails you lose.” (Mark 12:15f., Original Autograph)

“One Christian is no Christian” (Tertullian). Just the one? (Cf. Matthew 26:22.)

Pastors, be careful – and be prepared – if you comfort the bereaved with the assurance that God himself has felt the grief of losing a loved one. “Yes,” you might hear in reply, “for a couple of days. I’ve lost my keys for longer.”

You could sum-up the theopathology of the Religious Right by saying that it has a beattitude problem.

If the US is a great country, it’s because it produces so many un-American Americans.

Rachel Held Evans – what? – close and kissed him? upright when drunk? by the scruff of his neck? on a charge of identity theft? at gunpoint? Possibilities abound.

Sign outside The Church of the Extra Virgin in the parish of Erewhon: “We Now Extend a Warm Welcome to / a Tepid Provision for / a Not-Quite-So Cold Shoulder to the Intrinsically Disordered.”

What is the difference between the atheisms of Richard Dawkins and Alain de Botton? I would say that while the former writes horseshit, the latter indulges in bullshit: the theological ignorance and vieux jeu rationalism of the one, the mauvaise foi and quiche spirituality of the other.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, that’s because it’s easier to love people when they’re not here in all their unsettling density and awkward detail. So too with Jesus. Were the Messiah hanging around my house rather than sitting at the right hand of God, I’m quite sure I’d think him a pain in the ass. Or rather even more a pain in the ass.

As the science of climate change grows ever more conclusive and monitory, the politics of climate change grows ever more posturing and dilatory. Let’s face it: the planet is screwed. Fine, I can die with that, but let’s at least cut the sanctimonious crap of leaving the world a better place than we found it, and safer for our children and grandchildren.

For too many people, getting to the top is a damn shame: the gifts they bring are liable to rust, while the skills they acquire are likely to ruin; the best they can expect is frustration, the worst corruption.

Why do people have affairs? To feel again. For the excitement, including the tactical challenges of tryst and evasion. The irresistible attraction of transgression (the theft of pears). The atavistic irresponsibility of it (childhood regained). And the fucking, of course the fucking, audacious and feral. A perfect storm for disordered desire with its wreckage of deceit and betrayal.

There are Christians who will not condone
using swearwords like “damn”, let alone
filth like “asshole” or “prick”,
yet who don’t give a shit
at the killing of thousands by drones.

So “Norway has been named as the best country in the world to grow cold” (MSN News, 3 October). Oops, that should be “old”.

Whenever there is a hue and cry that “Something must be done!”, you can be sure that the ensuing something mustn’t.

A politician says: “X is the lesser of two evils [X and Y].” A politician means: “X is good, Y is evil.” Politicians are inveterate Manicheans.

A politician lauded for “strong leadership”, for “knowing his own mind”, rarely has a mind worth knowing, except as a case study in sociopathy.

I was excited to read recently that there has been a huge surge in requests for “The Kim” – only to have my vanity quickly deflated. It turns out that the article was referring to a “bottom enhancement procedure” (a “bacial”) modelled on the butt of “Rear of the Year” Kim Kardashian. Not exactly what I had in mind.

66 on 6 October: I’m a beast.

I’ve begun to play hide-and-seek again, but now my playmates are memories.

Friday 24 October 2014

A typical day: Friday diary

God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.

I have to give a short talk tonight. I need to write 1500 words. I went to a cafe and got some coffee and wrote it. It was fine. It gave me pleasure to quote the City of God. Everyone in the world wants the same thing: peace. But you can’t get it unless, instead of aiming for peace, you aim for God. Augustine is always coming up with things like that. Another one I read the other day: goodness is something you can possess only by sharing it; as soon as you try to keep it for yourself, you don’t have any.

I walked past an antique store. They had an old three-volume set, very nice, of Boswell’s diaries. I nearly bought them. I stopped myself just in time on the grounds that I already had two editions and still hadn’t read it all. But with Boswell you never feel like you need to read it all. If you are wise you will always save some for later, since never again until the end of the world will there be another Boswell.

I read a book on Hellenistic aesthetics, by Barbara Somebody, with lots of photos of sculptures and paintings. I was moved by all those statues showing infants committing violence. A baby strangling a goose. A baby crushing a duck. A baby strangling snakes in both hands. Also the grotesques: statues of dwarves, hunchbacks, drunken old women. And the beautiful sad slaves. Apparently there is more to the Hellenistic aesthetic than just bad poetry.

A minister was telling me all about Tinder, the dating app. You swipe left to reject someone and right to accept them. He did the hand actions on an invisible phone. Then he said he worried that things like this are diminishing our humanity. His cheeks glowed with pleasure.

I have noted, with some concern, that lately I have forgotten to be afraid of dying. This has made me more cantankerous. A bit insensitive towards my fellow man. I offended somebody yesterday and I think I might have offended someone else today. These are people I like. (I would never offend a stranger.) I wonder if this could explain the famed irritability of our Christian monks and ascetics. Without the fear of dying one runs the risk of becoming just a little bit cranky and unkind.

Missed my afternoon nap in my study. So I snuck into the chapel while no one was around and lay down on the floor for ten minutes. Lying there in the big clear silence, not ten feet away from the baptismal font, my reveries were shattered by the sound of three text messages arriving in my phone. Without checking to see who it was, I wished them harm. In the sacred stillness of the chapel I cursed the sender of the messages and wished them harm.

I had a conversation with a gentleman who loves the novels of Roberto Bolaño. I told him I respect Bolaño, I have read them all, I thought 2666 was tremendous. But love Bolaño? I can’t quite imagine what that would mean. He said, “What about Cormac McCarthy then?” I could tell that we would never see eye to eye on this matter. We talked about Flannery O’Connor, who once said that she had gone to someone's house and they had shown her a chicken that could walk backwards. Flannery O’Connor would have been right at home in the town where I grew up.

I went into a bar and got a beer. All the tables were taken, but an old geezer with a grizzled head and a delirious coloured shirt offered me a seat at his table. He looked a little bit homeless. I toasted his health. He asked me what I was drinking and I said it was beer but apart from that I didn’t know. I asked what he was drinking and he said it was something foreign. Mexican maybe, or Japanese. “But,” he said with immense satisfaction, “it’s the cheapest.”

In the car I am listening to an audiobook of Burke on the French Revolution. I love the eighteenth-century English sentence. It is always full of surprises, if you can pay attention long enough to hear the whole thing out. The nineteenth-century sentence is a different matter. It is like the champagne after the party is ended. The glass is warm. All the bubbles have gone out of it. Drinking it doesn't alleviate your misery but only deepens it.

I stopped on the way home to pick up a pizza. The girl at the counter is pretty in a sultry, inaccessible sort of way. She has a mouth like Scarlett Johansson. And that’s saying something. It is always a pleasure to hand her my credit card. If you pressed your face into her hair it would smell like pizza dough and oregano. But they don’t like it if you behave that way when you’re paying for your pizza. I paid for it and waited, watching an old music video on a big TV above the drinks fridge. The sound was turned down and I kept trying to remember the tune, but in my head it kept getting mixed up with the tune of “Happy.” Then the pizza guy came from the kitchen with the pizza. Unlike most people in his station in life, he looked me full in the face and smiled at me and said my name. He was a middle eastern kid, Lebanese maybe, with one of those thin Muslim beards, and when he handed me the pizza I could have sworn he had the face of Jesus. Or maybe he was just grinning like that because he gets to work with Scarlett Johansson.

My daughter is sick. In a household of this size there is always someone who is sick or down on their luck or torn by a moral dilemma. She woke again just now. I gave her some medicine and put her back to bed. The dog is sleeping in solidarity beside her. He has a better life than any of us, yet he is always the first to sympathise with any human misfortune. Once he ate twelve eggs from a carton that was left out on the table. Once he ate a whole packet of biscuits. Once he ate three chickens. We didn’t give him any sympathy, I can tell you. But when a child is sick he is always the first to lick their face and to lie down on the floor beside them and to stay there through the night, just in case they wake and reach out in the dark and need to feel something strong and reassuring at their side.

Day and night I cry to you, my God.

Monday 20 October 2014

Christology: twelve grammatical rules

I've just finished another semester teaching christology. This is one of my favourite classes. (My other favourite is the Trinity.) Really it's one of the joys of my life to be able to explore such things in a classroom setting. In the tutorials we worked our way through two of the richest works on christology ever written: the third volume of Irenaeus's Against Heresies, followed by Athanasius's On the Incarnation. The twelve weekly lectures were as follows:
Part I. Lord Jesus Christ: New Testament Christology 
1. The Son of Man: Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
2. The great interchange: Christ in Paul’s letters
3. The Word made flesh: Christ in the Gospel of John 
Part II. The Iron in the Fire: The Doctrine of the Incarnation 
4. Adam recapitulated (Irenaeus)
5. Wisdom, Word, and Image (Origen)
6. What is not assumed is not healed (Gregory of Nazianzus)
7. The iron in the fire: two natures, one person (Cyril of Alexandria)
8. Singing in one voice: the whole Christ, head and body (Augustine)
Part III. Redeemer of the World: The Doctrine of the Atonement
9. Deification: renewing the image (Irenaeus and Athanasius)
10. Satisfaction: paying our debts (Anselm and Julian of Norwich)
11. Reconciliation: bringing us home (Karl Barth)
12. Messiah: Prophet, Priest, and King (Calvin and Barth)
In the last class I tried to draw together some of the key points in a list of simple "grammatical rules" for talking about Jesus Christ. I'm sure I've missed some important points, but here are the twelve rules I came up with. Each is a negation followed by an affirmation:

1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly human.

2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.

3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.

4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.

5. Not to divide redemption from creation, or to give the impression that Christ invades a world that is alien to him. Human beings were created after the pattern of the same eternal Image that has become incarnate in Jesus.

6. Not to divide Christ’s person and work, or to give the impression that Christ is merely the instrument by which God achieves salvation. Salvation is a person: Jesus Christ.

7. Not to divide Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, or to give the impression that he achieves salvation at just one moment of his career. The total life-journey of Jesus Christ – from his birth, to his ministry of teaching and healing, to his death and resurrection – is the saving event.

8. Not to speak of Christ’s death as a mere preliminary stage on the way to resurrection. Jesus Christ is the Priest whose death abolishes the power of sin and death. He is the humble God.

9. Not to speak of Christ’s resurrection as a mere reversal of his death. Jesus Christ is the King whose resurrection exalts and glorifies human nature. He is the deified human.

10. Not to speak of Christ in any way that implies that he is absent, or to give the impression that the church’s task is to make Christ present. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who reveals himself. He is present always and everywhere as the divine-human light of the world.

11. Not to divide Christ from Israel’s history, or to give the impression that the New Testament abolishes the Old. As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ is the surpassing fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.

12. Not to speak of Christ as if he were relevant only to some people in some cultures and circumstances. Jesus Christ is present to all people, in all times and places, as their divine-human Prophet, Priest and King. The church trusts and proclaims, but never possesses, this Messiah.

Sunday 19 October 2014

What's in a name? On scholars who study their eponyms

Prophecy? Coincidence? Firm parenting? Whatever the explanation, it's intriguing that some scholars happen to share the name of their area of expertise. Two of the most distinguished experts on George Herbert's poetry were named after him: Herbert Grierson and George Herbert Palmer. (Confusingly, the famous pragmatist George Herbert Mead also studied under George Herbert Palmer; it was a great period for George Herberts of every stripe.)

I often feel a certain mystical chill when I reflect that one of our leading scholars of Christian mysticism bears the name of Denys Turner. And it is sobering to contemplate the number of theologians who have been christened under the portentous names of Calvin and Anselm. Consult the library catalogue if you don't believe me.

In some instances, of course, a scholar's name was given not at baptism but at ordination. That makes it easier to understand why so many patristic scholars are experts on their eponymns. Many a Maximus and a Gregory and a Cyril can be explained on these grounds. The Irenaeus scholar Irenaeus Steenberg belongs to this class. I am less certain about the Augustinian scholar Augustine Curley. One can only assume that the patristic scholar Polycarp Sherwood is in this class too, since few indeed are the mothers who, upon first sight of their newborn offspring, pronounce in joyous recognition the name of Polycarp.

But the most theological name of all time would have to go to the Reformed church historian whose three names were eponymous with a Reformation theologian, a patristic theologian, and the first person of the Trinity. I refer to Calvin Augustine Pater – a gentleman who also studied at Calvin College and then taught, for good measure, at a place called Knox College.

Thursday 16 October 2014

The Apostles' Creed in limericks

by Kim Fabricius

I believe in the Father, Creator
of nice things like pets and potaters;
as for floods, flags, and fleas
and all sorts disease –
yuk, theodicy sooner or later.

I believe in the Christ, Lord and Son,
whose conception was second to none,
for the Spirit had plans
to omit Mary’s man –
so, alas, for poor Joseph, no fun.

I believe in the Lord’s execution,
after torture by state Lilliputians;
and a grievous descent
to a place of lament
that was emptied without retribution.

I believe in the Lord’s resurrection,
as physical as an erection;
he returned to the stars
with his bruises and scars
to portray a new kind of perfection.

I believe in his coming as Judge,
not to raise hell or settle a grudge,
but to reconcile all,
even those who will bawl,
“What, no violence? A liberal fudge!”

I believe in the Spirit and kirk,
(though the latter can be quite a jerk);
and forgiveness – it’s free,
(says the church, with a smile – or a smirk?).

To conclude: the communion of saints:
I’m unsure what it is; but it ain’t
only Christians like you
who believe as you do –  
like the Lord’s under creedal constraint?

Oops, life – Life! – I almost forgot.
What’s it like? Well, I’ll give it a shot:
it’s like visions of Blake,
it’s like ice cream and cake –
it’s a lot, and a lot, and a lot …

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Ten beads: protestant meditations on the Ave Maria

Hail Mary
Forgive me, Mary, if I do not hail you as Queen of Heaven, if I hesitate to praise you as Mediatrix or salute you as Co-Redemptrix. Allow me to greet you humbly by the humble name your mother gave you. Mary, a peasant child. A poor girl from a little village. Mary, in whom the joy of heaven came down to dwell. Mary, the little hinge on which the hopes of all the ages turn. I greet you, Mary! If I do not adore your perpetual virginity, I will instead contemplate your perpetual humility, for all riches were laid up in your poverty. If I do not venerate your immaculate conception, I will strive nonetheless to imitate your immaculate fidelity, for through your faith the knot of human faithlessness has been undone.

Full of grace
I believe – I try to believe – in grace. I hope for it. I look for it like watchmen for the morning. I stake my life on something that has never appeared to me. A grace that is always, like my death, just out of reach – near, far, approaching, never yet. I believe, or hope, that grace is coming for me. I believe because I do not know. I believe because I have not seen. But you, Mary, have seen grace and have known it in your body. In you grace became flesh. The grace you knew was as real as a baby's kicks, as real as blood and birth. Even when I cannot quite believe in grace for myself, I will believe in grace for you. Even when grace is hidden from me, I will believe that you have known it, that all the grace the world will ever need has dwelt in you.

The Lord is with thee
I greet you, Mary, with love for you who bore the one I love. He is with me only because he was with you. He wears my nature because he clothed himself in yours.

Blessed art thou amongst women
For as long as men have had the power of speech they have brought curses and laid them at the feet of women (the women they love). God started it, acting like a man that day, cursing Eve and all her daughters. I have cursed a few myself. Forgive me, Mary, but I too am a man, a son of Adam. To curse a woman is as natural to me as making love. Sometimes the two things are the same. But man and woman are blessed in you as at their first creation. In you the sabbath comes again: the maker’s blessing: rest.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
Your body is the little door through which God stooped to enter the small house of my life. God sought me out and found me. Because I could not find the way to God, God sought and found you, Mary, and through you came to visit me in my grief.

Holy Mary
O Mary, the world has been profaned before my eyes. I had ceased to believe that sanctity was possible. I had ceased to believe that anything was holy. I am sorry, Mary, but I am more than twice your age when you conceived, and all the holiness I ever knew as a child has been worn out by time. Yet a holy flame burns in your mind, and the whole world's darkness is defenceless before one light. Mary, I will call you holy in hope for the day when all things will be sanctified, when all minds will be light and not darkness. Until then, I will follow the small flame of your life that leads me to your Son.

Mother of God
Your womb, Mary, nourished in silence the Word that nourishes all worlds. From your blood God took blood into his veins, from your flesh he took flesh. God came forth looking just like you, your spitting image, with the blood of all your ancestors running in his veins.

Pray for us sinners
Pray for me, Mary. Not because your Son is deaf to my cries but because he hears so well. Because each cry of mine echoes yours, you who brought God crying into the world and watched him grow and treasured all these things within your heart. You who stood by at the hour of his passion, broken by the grief of all the world laid on him. You whom he called woman. Your heart was broken by him first. Let the cry of my heart ascend, mingled with yours, to your God and mine.

Now and at the hour of our death
At the hour of your Son’s passion you looked into the face you loved and saw the union of love and death written there – God’s love, the whole world’s death. You who have seen the secret of my dying, pray for me now. Now in the hour of my grief. Now when death's shadow lies across my heart. May the mystery of my dying be made clear in the light of your Son, the only one who ever truly died because he truly (ever) lived.

If ever your Son should forget me, Mary, take his hand and place it on your abdomen and remind him that he once dwelt there, bearing your flesh (my flesh), your blood (and mine), a stranger no more to grief (my grief and yours). Remind him, holy Mary, that in your body God has already said the one Amen to every human prayer.


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