Thursday 31 December 2015

The greatest literary characters and how they work

“The choice of the point of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions” (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, 26).
If you asked me who are the four greatest characters in literature, I would say Plato’s Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, Boswell’s Johnson, and Don Quixote. The first three all conform to a particular literary type. Let us call it the Revered Friend type. The characteristics of the Revered Friend are as follows:
  • he has some particular genius that sets him apart from the common stock;
  • he has a circle of admiring friends who enjoy his genius;
  • he is depicted in third-person narrative by one of these admiring friends;
  • his character is conveyed mostly through dialogue, i.e., through his own speech and his interactions with other speakers.
The distancing effect of third-person narration is absolutely critical to this character type. The reader is drawn into the character’s inner circle and quickly achieves a friendly rapport with the character. That is the effect of a third-person friendly narrator. But because the narrator also reveres the character, the reader is never allowed to get too close. In most of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ own opinions remain elusive; we hear him questioning others, but we never quite find out what he thinks about it all. In the Gospels, we are drawn into Jesus’ inner circle but we are also kept at a reverential distance. We are reminded that his identity is enigmatic, that his teaching is hard to understand, that he is liable to be misunderstood by the world and betrayed or abandoned by his inner circle.

Again, the reader of the life of Dr Johnson shares Boswell’s friendly point of view, yet the reader also shares Boswell’s awe. We are not allowed to get too close. The third-person narration helps to keep us at the correct distance from the character. In one famous scene, Boswell reminds us that there are parts of Johnson’s character that must remain forever hidden from our view. Johnson’s friends at the dining club have often observed his habit of squeezing oranges into his drink and then stuffing the orange peels into his jacket pockets. In Johnson’s room one day, Boswell sees a pile of orange peels from the night before, all scraped clean and arranged on the table. He plucks up the courage to ask Johnson about it:
Johnson: “I have a great love for them.”
Boswell: “And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?”
Johnson: “I let them dry, Sir.”
Boswell: “And what next?”
Johnson: “Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.”
Boswell: “Then the world must be left in the dark.”
In a scene like this the reader is drawn into an extraordinary friendly intimacy with the great man: we are in his room; we are observing the subtlest eccentricities of his character; we are hearing him talk about the things he loves (in this case, orange peels). But at the same time we are kept at a reverential distance. The narrator leads us to the brink of revelation, only to conceal the very thing we long to know (in this case, the meaning of the orange peels).

It is the same technique, a hundred times over, in Plato and the Gospels. We are constantly oscillating between the beautiful and the sublime (to use Edmund Burke’s categories), between intimate friendship and astonished awe.

This technique is possible only in third-person narration. Would Socrates have been the greatest philosopher in the world if he had written books? If, instead of the memoirs of the evangelists, we had received a first-person Memoir of the Messiah, would anybody ever have become a Christian? You might love and admire an autobiographer, but you will never end by putting down the book and confessing him Lord. Only a third-person narrative can induce a response of that magnitude. Only a third-person narrator can depict both the beauty and the sublimity of a great personality, so that the reader becomes simultaneously friend and worshipper.

I have mentioned that I think Don Quixote is the only other character who can be set alongside Socrates and Jesus and Dr Johnson. Though Don Quixote does not conform so neatly to the type of the Revered Friend, Cervantes uses some of the same techniques in a comical and ironic way. The narrator is portrayed as a historian and a researcher, rather than as a personal friend of his subject: on the first page he admits that he doesn’t even know Don Quixote’s real name. Yet through the process of telling the story of this delusional knight, the narrator increasingly comes to adopt the perspective of an admiring friend. He loves Don Quixote and regards him as a kind of moral genius, even while regularly reminding the reader that the character is quite mad.

Sancho Panza, the faithful friend and squire of Don Quixote, provides another point of view on the main character. He supplies much of the book’s comedy by the way he adopts the role of an admiring friend in spite of his amply justified scepticism about Don Quixote’s claims.
“What’s the gentleman’s name?” asked the maid.
“Don Quixote de la Mancha,” replied Sancho Panza. “He’s a knight errant. One of the best and bravest the world has seen for a very long time.”
“What’s a knight errant?” asked the maid.
“Are you so green that you don’t know that?” replied Sancho. “Then I’ll tell you, my girl, that a knight errant – to cut a long story short – is beaten up one day and made Emperor the next. Today he’s the most unfortunate and poverty-stricken creature in the world; tomorrow he’ll have two or three kingdoms to give to his squire.”
Modern fiction has also blessed us with some very memorable examples of the Revered Friend. Why does Sherlock Holmes have such a lasting power over our imagination? It is because we see him from Watson’s point of view. We are part of Holmes’ inner circle, and we observe his genius from an astonished distance.

The greatest fictional comedies of the past century, P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, use exactly the same technique. Jeeves is an omniscient butler who finds brilliant and unlikely ways to extricate his employer, Bertie Wooster, from various social crises.
“Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don't know?”
“I couldn't say, sir.” 
The effect of Jeeves’ character depends entirely on the point of view of the narrative. We see Jeeves through Bertie Wooster’s eyes. We seldom know exactly what he is thinking. Even when it comes to matters closest to Jeeves’ heart – the colour of a tie, the selection of a pair of trousers – we are left to infer his opinions from what he does not say. Jeeves is the central actor in every plot, yet we rarely see him doing anything directly. He is a shimmering, mysterious presence, a kind of puppeteer who orchestrates events behind the scenes. His effect on the reader would be impossible if the stories were narrated from Jeeves’ point of view, or if the narrator did not take pains to hold Jeeves at the proper distance so that we never get too close to him.

Some very fine novelists have aspired to portray personalities of genius but have failed because of an imperfect mastery of the Revered Friend technique. One of the few criticisms that I could make of the Harry Potter novels is that they fail to convince the reader of the story's main premise, namely that Harry is a magical genius. All the characters, and especially the villains, keep assuring us of Harry’s genius; every plot hinges on this fact; but the reader is too close to Harry, and too closely shares his point of view, to feel that he is an exceptional person. To keep the story moving along, we are quite willing to believe in Harry’s genius – but we never come to feel it the way we feel that Sherlock Holmes is a genius of observation and inductive reasoning. It might have been quite different, and Harry Potter might have been a great character, if only the narrator had shared Ron’s or Hermione’s point of view instead of Harry’s. Indeed it is no coincidence that one comes away from the novels with the impression that Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore are the richest personalities. They are more interesting characters simply because we see them from Harry’s point of view. They are more lifelike because we see them from the proper distance.

I may be wrong, but I can’t help wondering whether Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels might also have been better if the author had made better use of the Revered Friend technique. Each of the two women, Elena (the narrator) and Lila, regards the other as a “brilliant friend.” But again I found myself having to believe this since the novels never quite manage to show it. The problem, as I see it, is that the narrator is too self-absorbed to depict Lila objectively. Lila is meant to be a deep and intriguing personality, but for the most part she comes across as a function of Elena’s ego. Elena’s life is defined by her obsession with her friend. She gazes relentlessly at Lila, but somehow her gaze is so intensely self-interested that we never get enough objectivity, enough distance, to see Lila properly and so to appreciate what it is that Elena finds so impressive about her.

Perhaps that is no criticism at all, given that Elena’s obsession with Lila is what the novels are all about. But, in fiction, obsession can be depicted in ways that render the object of obsession large and magnificent. Just think of Moby-Dick, and of how the reader comes to share in Ishmael’s enormous fascination with whales and whaling. Ishmael is one of the largest egos in literature, yet we learn far more about whales than we do about him – precisely because his ego is defined by its obsession with whales.

As much as I enjoyed the Neapolitan Novels, my complaint is that the narrator is too much like Ahab and not enough like Ishmael. Ahab's is a narrow and suffocating egotism that leaves no room for anything else, while Ishmael's is an expansive egotism that makes room for everything else, though always on its own terms and within its own peculiar frame of reference.

Or to return to an earlier example, I would have liked the Neapolitan Novels better if Lila had kept orange peels in her pockets and Elena had never quite understood why. But, as it stands, the Elena of the Neapolitan Novels would never even have wondered about the orange peels. She would merely have turned it into a contest by accumulating her own (even bigger) collection of orange peels. Our interest in Lila is deflected; we are left staring into the pockets of Elena.

Sunday 20 December 2015

And another thing about cycling...

1. Expert cycling, therefore, I adore

Glancing over something I wrote a few years ago (also published here), I noticed a teeny-weeny mistake:

It must have been a typo, I mustn't have been paying attention that day, I have no other explanation for it. Because, reader, I am altogether Expert in my approach to this whole grand business of riding a bicycle. I slide my skinny body into lycra; I strap a heart-rate monitor to my chest; I ride a sleek machine made of carbon; I analyse data; I train; I eat and drink according to Scientific Principles.

Not that I am obsessed with cycling. But in the past year I have ridden 10,000 km, have climbed mountains, plunged into valleys, entered races, lost races, ridden in rain and fog, in burning heat and numbing cold, have been chased by dogs and swooped by magpies and screamed at by psychotic motorists, have crashed and lost my memory and got it back again, have ridden in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, in northern New South Wales, in northern and southern Queensland, in the country and in the city and by the sea, lugging my bicycle around on planes and trains and automobiles, and, all in all, having a pretty good time of it.

You will scarcely believe this, reader, but I even went so far as to watch something called the Tour de France – a sporting event! – on television, and, if I am not mistaken, enjoyed it too.

2. Why men need bicycles

I know of a gentleman who, on the day of his sixtieth birthday, went out and bought himself a $250,000 Porsche. He kept the car parked at work, he never brought it home. He didn’t tell his wife because he knew she wouldn’t understand. She learned about it later, by accident, when she happened to answer a phone call about the insurance policy on the car. The poor chap had been right: she didn’t understand.

Other men I know have kept a new woman at work, though in the long run this is even more expensive than a Porsche. They would like to bring her home, but again they worry that their wives won’t understand. Still other men have worked for half a lifetime to accumulate wealth and then gambled it all away in one night.

You see the kind of troubles a fellow can get himself into if he does not keep his arse firmly planted where it belongs, on the saddle of a bicycle?

At a certain age and at certain times in life a man feels instinctively the need to revenge himself upon his own life. As Freud got older he turned his thoughts from the familiar homely instincts of pleasure and pain to darker ruminations about the Todestrieb, the sinister “death drive.” Descending a steep winding road at 80 km/hr on a racing bike, knowing that any small error will be my last, is a very gratifying – and, compared to the alternatives, very safe – form of sublimated revenge. If ever I crash and die, the first thing I will say to myself afterwards will be: “Ha! Now we're even!”

3. The mailman

Once when I was wheeling my bicycle out on to the street, the postman, who was making his rounds, stopped and addressed me warmly: “Nice bike! Carbon, eh? They didn’t look like that back in my day, I can tell you! Cycling saved my life, did you know that? In my late twenties I was in a bad way. I was steadily drinking myself to death. I don’t think I ever would have lived to see my thirtieth birthday, and I didn't care either. Until I met this girl. She had cropped blonde hair and blue eyes and the firmest cycling thighs you ever dreamed of. She was an athlete, she did triathlons and bike races and marathons. I never thought I could stop drinking but I got a bike and started riding with her and, before I knew it, I had given up the drink by accident. Not because I ever tried but just because I found something I liked even better. I wanted to marry that woman, I wanted to have children with her, but it didn’t work out, you know how these things go. It doesn't matter though because after we’d said goodbye I got straight back on the bike and kept riding. It turned my life around. I don’t ride much anymore but if there’s one thing I learned from cycling it’s the value of water. Ah, now there's a thing for you! Water! I never really understood it, never really appreciated it properly, until I was on the bike. Even now, I always drink four litres of water every day. It’s the secret of my eternal youthfulness,” said the grizzled old fellow. “I’ve always had a powerful thirst, ever since I was born I suppose. But I never went back to liquor after I learned the value of water.” And here he produced a plastic drink bottle from the saddle bag on his postman’s motorbike, and said, “You see! I carry one of these around with me everywhere!” And I took the bottle from the bottle cage on my bicycle and toasted his health, and there in the morning sunlight we drank a mouthful of water with the profoundest brotherly contentment in the world. Then he handed me my mail – all bills, the bastard – and went on his way, and I went mine.

4. The Frenchman

The first bicycle I ever owned was built for me by a Frenchman by the name of Jean Le Roux. He was a friend of the family, a kindly good old man, who was always tinkering with one machine or another in his garage and, one Christmas, decided to build me a bicycle. I was eight years old; I had always wanted my own bicycle; my parents told me they could not afford to purchase things like bicycles; I did not believe that I would ever own one. Then, on that blessed Christmas morn, Jean Le Roux appeared on our doorstep and presented me with the most magnificent pair of wheels I had ever seen. It was red with a top tube curved like a rolling wave. It had fixed gears and sweeping chrome cruiser handlebars and a plush black saddle mounted over two wide bright springs with steel studs along the back. The spokes glittered in the sunlight. I rubbed my eyes for fear that I was dreaming. The Frenchman had built it himself, assembling it out of spare parts and even painting it himself. He painted it red, he told me with a wink, so that it would go faster. It was amazing, it was as if he knew the secrets of my heart, for of every kind of bicycle that there is, I loved the red ones best.

For three weeks I pedalled that machine around the streets as proud as any king. I was the luckiest boy alive, and I knew it.

On the first day back at school I mounted my lovely bicycle and made my way to school, as slowly and majestically as if I had been in a parade. I wanted all my friends, the whole world, to behold the glory of my bicycle. I had nearly reached the school when Terry Nicholls, a big grown-up boy from Year 5, went whizzing past me on his brand new store-bought BMX. As he passed me he spoke the fateful words: “That’s a funny-looking bike.”

His words entered my heart as quick as snakebite.

At first I was merely confused. I thought he had misunderstood the brilliance of my bicycle. Then I arrived at school and saw all the other bikes, every one of them a store-bought BMX exactly like the bike of Terry Nicholls. It was then that my confusion turned to shame. Deep in my sinful heart I buried my love for the handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux. When anybody mentioned my bike I pretended that I did not love it, that it was just a funny old bicycle, that I was only riding it until – oh, until! – I got a BMX.

Somewhere G. K. Chesterton has said that to pretend to like something is a sin, but to pretend not to like a thing is the sin against the Holy Spirit. I do not know if I will ever be forgiven for the way my treacherous heart turned against my own first bicycle, for the way I pretended to hate it when I loved it better than anything else this world had ever given me.

Sometimes I think all the troubles of my life began that day. It was the day the sin of Adam, lying latent in my little heart, took possession of me and turned me into a blasphemer against the good and holy handmade bicycle of Jean Le Roux and an idolator for the cheap and tawdry store-bought bicycle of Terry Nicholls. Mother of God, pray for us!

5. Why the bicycle is so beautiful to behold

Of all machines the bicycle is the most beautiful. The shape of the frame, the curves and the lines, the wheels, the saddle, the handlebars, the shining spokes: you would think it had been designed purely for aesthetic effect. But the beauty of the bicycle derives wholly from utility. The bicycle is a perfect unity of function and form. It is the beauty of nature translated into the medium of the machine.

The bicycle is the most energy-efficient mode of transportation in the world. It uses energy even more efficiently than walking. Nature is perfected by grace, and the human body is perfected when it becomes a cycling machine, when those imperfect appendages, the legs, are united to pedals that turn the crank that turns the chain that turns the cog that turns the blessed wheel.

To see a human body moving on a bicycle is to see nature: and more than nature: grace.

Please remember this, reader, next time you open your mouth to pass judgment on a sweaty fat man dressed in lycra heaving himself up a hill. If you cannot see his beauty, that is not his fault: you must pray for better eyes.

6. Humiliation

My career in club riding had inauspicious beginnings. I had been out and about on my bicycle a great deal, but always alone, or at most with one or two friends. Several times I crossed paths with the local cycling group, several times they invited me to join them. I have never been much of a joiner, but one of these neighbourly gentlemen explained to me that I would learn more about cycling if I rode in a group. I liked the way he said the word, learn. I liked the prospect of initiation into the deeper mysteries of the bicycle.

So it was that, early one Saturday, not without trepidation, I embarked on my first bunch ride. After ten minutes I felt that I was getting the hang of it – staying close to the wheel in front of me, adjusting my speed to the speed of the group, pointing out the holes and hazards on the road and all the rest of it. After fifteen minutes I was confident. I was, as they say, riding like a Pro.

That was when we got to our first red light. We stopped, and things would have turned out fine if the light had never changed to green.

But, reader, it changed.

Everybody started moving. I mounted the saddle. I looked down to clip my shoe into the pedal. I drove my foot down hard and the bike surged forwards – straight into the wheel of the bike in front of me. It is, you see, a tricky business to clip your shoe into a bicycle pedal. I had been watching my shoe instead of watching the wheel in front of me. I crashed right into him. I fell. I sprawled. Little pieces of my bicycle and its rider clattered across the road.

I was in a state of shock as I peeled myself off the asphalt. My clothes were torn. The chain had come off. The water bottle had rolled into the gutter. My knee was bleeding. I don't need to tell you that it took a manly and heroic effort to resist the impulse to cry, to faint, to call my mother.

I am no stranger to humiliation. An acute capacity for self-disgust is, if I may say so, one of the strongest points of my emotional repertoire. So, all things considered, I was feeling pretty lousy as I mounted the battered bicycle. I thought: I am a laughing-stock. I thought: I will never be invited to ride with them again. I thought: I will renounce the world and retreat into a life of solitude.

Yet as I wobbled my bleeding way across the intersection I discovered that my fellow cyclists, all waiting for me, were as indifferent as lizards. When, shamefaced, I came alongside these dear good citizens, I merely heard the matter-of-fact question, “Ready to roll?” – and I have rolled with them ever since.

7. Ezekiel’s vision

When Ezekiel saw a vision of the glory of the Lord, he saw four living beings mounted upon intersecting wheels that can move in all directions. What is remarkable about this vision is that the four beings also have wings, but they use them only for display. When it comes to moving around, they prefer to roll. The rims of their mighty wheels are “so high that they were dreadful,” and are covered all round in eyes. On earth the wheel is a piece of machinery, in heaven it is organic, eternally seeing, eternally rolling. A little boy once asked me if he would still get to ride his bicycle in heaven. I told him no: in heaven you will be a bicycle. Our eyes will be wheels and our wheels will be eyes and wherever we look we will go.

8. Dawn

There are days, let's face it, when things don’t turn out right. But it is OK. The day was good before it ever started because I was up before dawn, riding in the cool dark with my friends. If everything else goes wrong, it will still have been worthwhile, and I will still be able to say, with the Psalmist, “this is the day that the Lord hath made, etc and so on.”

Even righteous Job, for all I know, might have felt that his day had not been a total loss if he had gone out that fateful morning and rolled a hundred kilometres on a bicycle before coming home to find that all his flocks and servants had been destroyed by fire that fell from heaven, and that all his sons and daughters had been struck dead by the Lord. He might have torn his garments and put ash on his head and cursed the womb that bore him and then added, “Ah but did you see the sun coming up this morning at the top of Bobbin Head!”

9. Birds

And sometimes, when I am gliding over the hills in the sunlight, the birds look down from their great height upon my whirling wheels, their little feathered faces flushed with envy.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Church attendance manual (5): church signs

Christians love signs, especially the big ones on street corners. They give us a rare and precious opportunity to share our faith and ideals with the public. Here is how ten different traditions make use of this important item of outdoor furniture:

Tuesday 15 December 2015

December doodlings

Surely reruns of The Roy Rogers Show and Only Fools and Horses should have Trigger warnings? And The House at Pooh Corner – a Tigger warning.

Does God read? But of course. Children’s books for serious reading, theology for laughs, and the Daily Mail or the Washington Times as emetics.

Peter and John are sitting at a table drinking cappuccinos outside the Guiding Starbucks in Jerusalem. “Hey, Andy,” Peter asks, pointing to a guy on the corner, “who’s that fruitcake waving the ‘Jesus died in my place’ placard?” “Him?” John replies. “It’s that evangelical, Barabbas.”

As Mary gave birth to the King of the Jews, I guess you could say that she had a Caesarean, right?

If you want to do something radically Christian this Christmas, something that might overcome ignorance and even contribute to world peace, give someone a Koran.

What chillingly prophetic timing. René Girard dies on November 4th and 10 days later there is an outbreak of religious violence followed by preparations for secular counter-violence, in its own way also sacred (see William T. Cavanaugh on the “migration of the holy” from the church to the state), and driven by the identification of scapegoats – pagans and apostates for Isis, the Muslim “other” for the West, either as collateral damage in the Middle East or as victims of hate crimes in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand.

Nous sommes tous Carl Schmitt” – President François Hollande, on his declaration of war on Isis and his announcement of an extended “state of emergency”.

Criminalising the wearing of niqabs and burkas in public, as in France, is a huge mistake; rather, it should be compulsory. And Muslim men – I propose that they should be required to sew a minatory star-and-crescent badge on their outer garments. After all, there is good precedent for such mandatory religious self-identification. That way, no more marshmallow Islamophobia – female or male, we could pick “them” off one by one… Okay, you got me: I’m angling for a job as an adviser on US Homeland Security. But frankly, I am more frightened by the sulfuric stench of xenophobic vengeance in the air that I am by the threat of Isis on our urban streets.

Godwin’s Law has recently acquired a corollary called “Cameron’s Law”, named after the British prime minister. It states that if, in a protracted debate, someone smears his political opponents by calling them “terrorist sympathisers”, he has ipso facto lost the argument. In addition, if he is then called out on such irresponsible character assassination and refuses to apologise, he is an asshole as well as a loser.

If we were doing this Christianity thing correctly, the church (metaphorically) would have more physiotherapists than priests – to treat our chronic prepatellar bursitis.

The late and wonderful Roger Lundin said, “The older I get the less nostalgic I become, and the more I become oriented towards the future.” Absolutely. Or in the phrase of the late and wonderful Fred Kaan (in a hymn for Remembrance Sunday), in my late sixties I am learning how to “remember forward”.

The contemporary university seems to be a cross between a mall, a sanctuary, and a caliphate of correctness, its students at once customers, refugees, and ideological jihadists. How easily sensitivity and indignation morph into a discourse of trauma and oppression. Yet because it is inescapably compromised by egotism and self-interest (Simone Weil), “the language of ‘rights’,” observes Rowan Williams, “becomes a fully moral affair only when it connects with empathy” – when, one might say, it is embedded in a culture of generosity and inquisitiveness. Put it like this: there is a fuck-you feeling about student protest today quite absent from the late sixties (I graduated from Wesleyan in 1970), when teachers were often our comrades, and we liked arguing with opponents, even real bad guys, not silencing them, lest our own convictions become immutable and canonical. With grotesque Girardian irony, against scapegoating, campus activists now practice scapegoating.

You know the now ubiquitous trope “the perfect storm”? It drives me cyclonic.

Letter published in the British newspaper the i, 8 December:
As an expat New Yorker, I can confirm, with Stefano Hatfield, that not all American gun-owners are “right-wing nutjobs”; to wit, Mr. Hatfield’s American cousin, who owns a gun “just in case” (7 December). Just in case of what? Presumably just in case of a violent assault in his home, i.e., for protection. Yet this sense of security is completely ill-founded, as studies show that people who keep guns at home for protection are more likely to be victims of homicide than people whose homes are firearm-free; and that guns meant for protection are more likely to be deployed in domestic violence than self-defence, or to cause accidental injury, particularly to children. So no, not all American gun-owners are right-wing and insane. Some are actually quite liberal but just plain stupid.
It is not the Second Amendment but the First that is the real sacred text of the NRA. The right to bear arms is, foundationally, a matter of freedom of religion. The deity is Moloch (and Charlton Heston is his Moses): worshipped with weapons (V: “Praise the Lord!” / R: “Pass the ammunition!”), propitiated by blood (“Hic est sanguis tuus”) – a lurid liturgy – his providence unfolding in a national narrative of redemptive violence. Hence the remorseless fusillades against proponents of gun-control: they are not just liberals, they are heretics.

You think the tyranny of the majority is dangerous? Try unanimity.

When I think of sad times in the past, they make me feel sad again. When I think of happy times in the past, they make me feel sad now. And when I think of the future – don’t even go there. Time is a bugger. There is joy and hope only in its apocalyptic interruptions, which – Deo gratio – happen all the – time.

The bad news is that Donald Trump is raving. Or rather the good news, since the gods first drive mad those they would destroy.

At least a Trump presidency would have a silver lining for the UK, as the compassionate media personality Katie Hopkins (who called asylum-seekers “cockroaches”) has recently tweeted: “If Donald Trump wins the race … I’m moving to America.”

What is success but failure either in denial or waiting to happen?

More intimate than sex, prayer is an erotic act, and therefore, like sex, susceptible to pornographic distortion. For X-rated images and “money” shots, see God TV.

Many thanks to Digital Cinema Media for its pusillanimous decision to ban the C of E’s 60-second advertisement featuring a variety of people – including a traffic cop, a dairy farmer, two refugees, and some weightlifters – saying the Lord’s Prayer. What toxic proselytising! It’s always encouraging to see atheists du jour applauding PC at its most risible – unbelievers who are more quickly offended, more shrilly illiberal, more obnoxiously smug, and more proudly ignorant than many of us Christians. You are the shock troops of evangelism. Keep up the good work.

Jesus died to save me. From what? From killing him again … and again … Well, it was the right idea. Lord, have mercy!

“The Word popped, peeped, and pooped among us” (John 1:14, original autograph).

Finally: “Let me remind you of the ladies of the Spanish court, who always kept their pet apes by their side so that they themselves would look more beautiful” (from John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, 1952). My oh Myers, come January it will be 10 years since I have been an occasional blogger here at F&T. Never has a baboon been so indulged by – and so grateful to – his (Ben) Meister. Cheers, mate!

And Nadolig Llawen, everyone!

Wednesday 9 December 2015

A little skirmish on faith and reason

Australian philosopher Nick Trakakis has written a piece on why he is no longer a Christian. He has come to believe that faith is incompatible with an inquiring philosophical mind. In response, I wrote a piece arguing that faith gives fullness to reason.

Monday 7 December 2015

In praise of audiobooks: my favourites from 2015

There are three things I’d like to say to you, three pieces of wisdom I’d like to pass on before I die. Number 1, ride a bicycle. Number 2, original sin – Augustine was right. Number 3, get yourself a subscription to

The human voice can be annoying, it can summon armies and bring disaster upon the earth, I know that, but it can also be the friendliest and most consoling thing in the world. For the past few years I’ve taken to filling up the nooks and crannies of my life with audiobooks.

Do you have to commute to work by car? Why are you letting those wisecracking adolescent radio presenters yell at you when you could be charming away the hours with Jane Austen?

Do you have a train to catch? Why are you standing there playing video games like a child when Dostoevsky could be whispering his dreadful secrets in your ears, peeling back the onion layers of every human heart that jostles around you on the carriage?

Is insomnia troubling you again? O my friend, don't lie there in the dark running your tired mind upon the cruel treadmill of grocery lists and budgets and things said and unsaid in last week's committee meeting. The adulterous heart of Madame Bovary is here to take away your cares, and poor Lolita is ready to coax you sweetly into the land of dreams, or at least to keep you innocently entertained till dawn.

Are your children taunting and tormenting one another in the backseat of the car? Why are you blasting their tender spirits with the hot and nihilistic winds of the latest pop songs, why are your offspring subjected to the parade of hourly horrors on the news, when you have Jonathan Stroud and Neil Gaiman right here at your disposal, quite eager to tell their stories and to scare your little treasures into a blessed and salubrious silence? Instead of letting the children wage war against each other, let them bask in all the wholesome blood and glory of Rosemary Sutcliff’s adaptation of the Iliad.

Or perhaps you are one of those people who subscribe to podcasts. I do not reprobate the podcast; I will not pronounce a curse upon it. I heard a good one myself this year. But if you're the kind of person who listens to educational podcasts – I will say nothing of that excitable kindergarten of the mind, the TED Talk – well, I would like to ask you one question: what could you possibly stand to learn from any podcast, from all the podcasts in the world, compared to the intellectual exhilaration of 36 hours of Adam Smith or 10 hours of John Locke or 24 hours – a sacred number – of David Hume?

Are you struggling with your faith? Have you lost your sense of humour? The collected essays of C. S. Lewis will put the spring back in your step. Or if Lewis has made faith seem too easy and too confident, just put your earphones in and let Nietzsche explain a few things to you.

Do you want to know what love is? Plato can show you. Are you intrigued by the darker side of religious experience? Flannery O'Connor has a story to tell. Do you want to know how to win friends and influence people? Tolstoy can help. Do you feel bored and disenchanted with life? Saddle up your donkey and follow Don Quixote and he will show you how to live.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Advent ambiguity

It’s all a bit vague. Advent I mean. All this waiting … and waiting … and waiting. We know who we’re waiting for because he’s already been here. In fact, as Beckett said of Godot (alluding to Matthew 25:31ff.?), we may not know it, but he’s here now: he “is my neighbour in the cell next to mine.” Still, yes, even as the one who is coming is here, so the one who is here is still coming. But notwithstanding the asinine prognostications and genre-illiterate apocalyptic readings of the witless and deranged, though we know the who, and also the why – to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – we don’t know the when, where, or how.

The same uncertainty goes for the four traditional themes of Advent – TRIGGER WARNING – death, judgement, heaven and hell.

No one knows the when, where, or how of the arrival of the Grim Reaper – though we do know that he will be infinitely more attractive than those who, in their ishoo-laden cosmetic attempts to delay the date, are only ensuring that they look more like a gargoyle than he does when he comes to collect them.

And judgement? Only someone who goes “Ee ore” would presume to know whether he will be going “Baaa” or “Meh heh” when the barnyard is finally sorted. We do know the criterion of judgement (Matthew 25:31ff. again), namely, whether we’ve been kind and compassionate bipedal beasts, but we know too that it will be a time of big surprises. Someone whose self-image is ovine might find himself a lamb chop.

Which brings me to heaven and hell. All we know about heaven is that the Cubs will be winning the World Series there, so if you’re from the South Side of Chicago you’ll know at once that you’re in the Other Place. Or not. Hell, after all, is a disputed doctrine. Were it not for the Yankees, I myself would be a universalist. And were I an annihilationist, I’d be drawing my imagery from the infinite void of cricket. Still, you never know. Or maybe you do. More’s the pity.

Yes, it’s all rather vague. Which, I suspect, is the point. The point of Advent I mean. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith doesn’t have all the answers. Faith requires what Keats called negative capability, being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Faith can say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Faith can even say “I was wrong” or “I’ve changed my mind.” Faith can embrace plurality and welcome the contested. “Clear” and “distinct” ideas and epistemological closure – that’s Cartesianism, not Christianity.

Shucks, I’m not even sure that I have faith. But then who cares, for who am I to say? It’s the faith of the one who is coming to meet us that saves (yeah, I’m a subjective genitive kind of guy). He is my Christmas carol, cake and cracker. How will I recognise him? Like Roy Rogers – TRIGGER WARNING – he’ll be riding a palomino (Revelation 19:11ff.). Or maybe not.

So here’s to Advent ambiguity. Yaki dah!

Sunday 29 November 2015

A Christmas carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed

St. Nicholas bringing gifts © Elisabeth Ivanovsky
On Facebook the other day, Derek Rishmawy said he wished there were more Christmas carols about St Nicholas' defence of the Nicene faith. The Santa Claus songs are excellent in their own way, but they don't always go as deeply as they could into the problems of 4th-century trinitarian theology. So, as an early Christmas present to Derek, I wrote this carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed.

Possible titles: "Santa Ain't an Arian", or "Put Some of That Old Time Trinitarian Theology in Your Stocking", or "All I Want for Christmas Is the Faith of Saint Nick," or, perhaps best of all (suggested by David Koyzis), "Ho-ho-homoousios". Whatever you call it, just be sure to sing it nice and jolly, accompanied by sleigh bells.

To the tune of Jingle Bells

Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί – hey!
Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί.

“There was when he was not,”
said Arius & Co.
It seems they had forgot
that God has come below:
born in Bethlehem,
crucified and raised,
not a creature but the One
whom angels hymn with praise – oh!


By the candlelight
Share some Christmas cheer!
Give someone a gift!
Drink another beer!
For our light has come
And burned away our dross.
God in flesh: O come let us
Adore φῶς ἐκ φωτός – oh!


Heresy is dull,
a bland philosophy,
it steals away the gifts
beneath the Christmas tree.
The holy catholic church
Bids all our joys increase,
So get beneath the mistletoe
And give the kiss of peace – oh!


Every girl and boy,
And all the grown-ups too,
Let your hearts be glad,
Let Christ be born in you.
Sinners, don’t despair,
There’s no need to be blue,
Lift your hearts up to the Son,
he’s θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ – hey!


Thursday 26 November 2015

Know-it-all heretics

Eunomius has everything figured out. Which pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with his theology. Divinity is, Eunomius claims, unbegottenness (which is why he thinks that the Son cannot be divine). Basil is aghast: “How much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he has discovered the very substance of God?” (Against Eunomius, 1.12). Eunomius is like every other heretic: an aggravating know-it-all.

Arius is certain that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father. Apollinaris, agreeing that Arius must be wrong, knows that Christ can be fully divine so long as he is not fully human. Nestorius, going with the dismissal of Apollinaris, figures out how the divine and the human natures interact in Jesus (even in Mary’s womb!). Eutyches, standing with the church in rejecting Nestorius, solves the metaphysical problem of two natures (or one or three—the numbers all blend together). The early christological heretics all claim to understand the relation of the divine to the human in Christ. Each heretic solves the problem with confidence, but the church confidently keeps the problems and so keeps the faith.

The orthodox tradition maintains the tension between the knowable and the unknowable in its affirmations. We cannot know what divinity is in itself, just as we hardly understand the nature of humanity, but it seems necessary to say—if salvation is real—that Christ is fully divine and fully human and that these two “natures” are not merely pressed up against each other or mixed together, but are somehow united in the person of Jesus Christ. But orthodox theology rarely attempts to specify that “somehow”.

The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners. “Heretics were too clever by half, thinking they could know God precisely so as to define the divine Being in all exactitude” (Frances Young, God’s Presence, 253).

Rowan Williams points out that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, which connotes making a choice that creates division—“a heresy in St Paul is… choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship” (“What is Heresy Today?”). The heretic is the one who looks at the doctrine of God and says “I understand this” or “I can prove that this is so” in such a way as to exclude all other understandings. The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation. To riff on Robert Jenson, there is nothing as capacious as a creed.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Tweet review of Edwin Hatch, The organization of the early Christian churches

It is a rare thing to come across such a hair style, or such a book. Edwin Hatch's 1880 Bampton Lectures gave a groundbreaking economic and institutional history of early Christianity. The lectures were published in 1881 as The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. The book was considered so important that it was promptly translated into German by no less a person than Adolf von Harnack. The book was recommended to me by one of my PhD students, and I'm very glad I read it. I was lucky enough to get a copy with uncut pages so I had the added pleasure of cutting the pages with my breakfast knife (following the revered example of Dr Johnson). I reviewed the book with a series of tweets, compiled here for posterity:

Lecture 1. Early Christian institutions have survived. This gives them a false air of familiarity and makes historical work bloody hard.

Lecture 2. The church was one of many civil clubs. Its special mark was almsgiving. This required financial administrators ("bishops") as well as distributors ("deacons").

Lecture 3. Early Christian governance was a continuation of the Sanhedrin: a court of collegial elders ("presbyters"), mostly for purposes of moral discipline.

Lecture 4. The apostles were succeeded by these councils of presbyters, but divisions soon led to the elevation of bishops as symbols of unity.

Lecture 5. Early Christian ordination was appointment to office, the same as in civil institutions. It did not confer spiritual powers. (Tertullian and the Montanists were defenders of tradition in the face of rapid institutional change.)

Lecture 6. So how did the clergy become a spiritually distinct class? Through state exemptions, they first became a civilly distinct class. The spiritualisation of this distinctiveness came later.

Lecture 7. Imperial power helped to weld the churches together until "church" came to mean a confederation ruled by councils.

Lecture 8. The medieval divide between parish clergy and cathedral clergy came from the way differing forms of civil organisation were adapted to urban and regional settings.

Conclusion: Every aspect of church order can be explained by external influences. Institutional forms are not fixed but elastic. They can and should be modified today. Attempts to rehabilitate the forms of earlier ages (he is thinking of the Oxford Movement) are misguided.

Friday 20 November 2015

A letter from a church to local mosques

Here is a letter I drafted for the church I attend in Swansea (UK), Uniting Church Sketty (a Local Ecumenical Partnership, born in May, of the former Bethel United Reformed Church and Sketty Methodist Church). Signed by our minister the Revd. Leslie Noon on behalf of the church and sent to the imams of the three mosques in Swansea – Sunni, Shia, and the University mosque – it is the kind of letter that I pray you might bring to the attention of your own church if you live in a Muslim-Christian context. In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in Europe, the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, no one is more at risk than Muslims themselves, from local xenophobic abuse and assault as well as from the pseudo-Islamic apocalyptic death cult known as IS, which is, after all, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

In the name of the One God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we greet you on behalf of Uniting Church Sketty. In the wake of the horrific events in Paris, we write to express our concern about their impact in the UK, particularly on the Muslim community.

The BBC has recently reported that hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by 70% in the past year. Since the terrorist attacks, there have been disturbing reports of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims around Britain, and such incidents will no doubt increase in the weeks ahead. The toxic combination of panic and fear, religious ignorance, and xenophobic scapegoating suggests that we should not be complacent about Islamophobic violence occurring in Swansea.

In this ominous context we, as a church, reaffirm our solidarity with Islam in the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour, and in our common search for peace and justice. We also express an especial concern for the safety and wellbeing of Muslims in Swansea during these troubled times. We will, of course, remember you in our prayers, but if there is any practical support that we can give you, please let us know. Both the Qur’an and the Bible say that God is able, and we are ready to work with you opposing what is evil and defending what is good.

May God unite us in purpose and peace.

In friendship, &c.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Tweet review of Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire

The book is Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology, newly translated by fellow blogger Wayne Coppins (Baylor University Press 2015). I reviewed it on Twitter as I was reading it over the last couple of days. I've pasted all the tweets below – first a summary of the book and then some general thoughts.

Summary of each section

1.1 Christian history is not a one-way street of development or decline.

1.2 New ideas have to take root in new social forms. A history of theology is a history of institutions and their guiding norms.

2.1a Early Christians generally participated in the pagan education system with very little fuss.

2.1b Christian teachers adopted diverse educational institutions. This helps to explain the diversity of early Christian theology.

2.1c While some Christian teachers (e.g. Justin) were free-wheeling philosophers, Origen's school was more like a formal university.

2.2 The Montanists sought to recover the power of primitive Christianity by adopting the institution of the pagan oracle cult.

2.3a A third new institution: the Christian worship service. This absorbed elements of both pagan and Jewish cults.

2.3b School-theology was urban; prophetic-theology was rustic; liturgical-theology was universally accessible.

2.3c Early eucharistic prayers show a high degree of adaptation to local contexts. Liturgy was a vehicle of theology.

2.4 When Christianity transformed institutions, the old forms remained recognisable; that was part of the attraction.

3.1a The development of fixed norms isn't a power-play or a theological regression. It's necessary for the formation of new institutions.

3.1b Normative lists of a NT canon weren't only used in ecclesial institutions but also in the free-wheeling schools.

3.1c Marcion's institutional setting was Alexandrian philology. He wasn't trying to create a new canon but to edit an existing one.

3.1d Powerful bishops and free-wheeling teachers both used a NT canon in exactly the same way.

3.1e The Gnostics, free-wheelers par excellence, presupposed the same normative canon but interpreted it differently.

3.1f The point of this is that the canon was not an authoritarian construct used to suppress dissident voices.

3.1g But the canon wasn't monolithic either. Different communities had slightly different canons with a common centre.

3.2 This (amazing) section on the canon has been a case study in the way norms functioned in the new Christian institutions.

4.1 Walter Bauer's thesis of early Christian plurality and of orthodoxy as power remains dominant, even though it can be seen now as a piece of liberal protestant apologetics.

4.2 If Bauer's basic thesis of early Christian plurality is correct, is there nevertheless a deeper unity of Christian identity amid the plurality?

4.3 In opposition to Bauer, the inculturation view argues for a deeper unity by positing an original (culturally pure) gospel embedded in diverse cultures.

4.3b If Bauer's model is an apologetic for liberal protestantism, the inculturation model is an apologetic for Catholicism. Both models impose too much on the sources.

4.4 Plurality and identity go together. Early Christians forged a coherent and bounded identity out of plurality.

4.5 Early Christianity was a pluralism centred on an identity-forming centre articulated in theological institutions.

Bibliography: 100 pages. Small font. German encyclopedic erudition. Anglo-American scholarship well represented too.

General thoughts

Best part is the very rich and very important section on the NT canon. The book is worth getting for this alone.

Other highlights: the account of Origen's school, and the surprising demonstration of local improvisation in early eucharistic prayers.

I see this as a revitalised history-of-ideas approach. It doesn't see ideas as the products of social struggle.

Nor are ideas timeless truths. Nor do they unfold teleologically. Ideas belong to the engine of social life.

The book argues that early Christian plurality is best explained by the diversity of its institutions.

It includes research from ritual studies and material culture (e.g. a nice little section on ancient libraries) but also shows the validity of the "great authors" for early Christian history.

After all, individual talents like Origen weren't just products of institutions but were creative agents of institutional formation.

Compared to the rest of the book, the theoretical basis of the plurality/identity thesis (sections 4.4 – 4.5) seemed a bit thin.

The three institutions studied here are selective and illustrative. But it got me thinking about the theological function of other institutions like baptism, burial, martyrdom, etc.

I wish there'd also been a section on early Christian preaching (especially since Markschies has done top work on preaching elsewhere, e.g. in his book on Origen). But I'm not complaining. 

Also really useful is the way the book maps out the field of early Christian studies. Great section on Walter Bauer and his reception.

All in all, I don't think I've learned so much about early Christianity since reading Peter Brown or Elizabeth Clark.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Stages of grief following a terrorist attack

The Six Stages of Public and Political Grief Following a Terrorist Attack

  1. Shock
  2. Panic and paranoia
  3. Twitter storm
  4. Selective fury, ideological posturing, scapegoating, expressed in Manichaean and apocalyptic discourse
  5. Knee-jerk clampdowns and counter-violence
  6. Shopping and self-beautification

Six Factors Which Inhibit the Grief Process and Suggest the Need for Counselling
  1. Pausing and taking a deep breath
  2. Self-examination
  3. Attentiveness and joined-up thinking
  4. Abjuring demonization and xenophobia
  5. Looking for political solutions rather than relentlessly bombing the barbarians “back to the Stone Age” (Curtis LeMay)
  6. Cultivating empathy (not fashionable feelings), imagination (not the same-old same-old), hope (not liberal optimism) – and prayer (not as withdrawal or escape from world but as Karl Barth’s “beginning of the uprising against the world”)

Sunday 15 November 2015

Hot diggidy doodlings

One Word is worth a thousand strictures.

As quarks and gluons are to matter, so Word and Sacrament are to the church – its two elementary constituents.

The church has too many ministers who use prayer as a form of preaching, and too few who practice preaching as a form of prayer.

All the best things happen in the dark. Observing the evening star or the silver sliver of the moon. Watching fireflies or fireworks. Roasting marshmallows by a campfire. Sleepovers. Canoodling in bed. Dreaming that dream, old man, you’ve been dreaming since you were a child. Oh yes – and Christ’s death (Mark 15:33) and resurrection (John 20:1). There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Dracula and Ann Coulter are nocturnal creatures.

“The Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, in New Zealand, the Very Revd Nick Kirk, has refused to host a concert that includes Karl Jenkins’s Mass for Peace, because the work refers to the Muslim call to prayer” (Church Times, 18 September). Hang on a minute. The Mass is, er, a Mass, and incorporates texts from the Psalms and Revelation. It was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo War (1998-99), most of whom were Muslims – Muslim civilians – wounded, raped, killed by Christians. It has been performed in cathedrals all over the world – including Christ Church Cathedral itself (in 2007). Not to mention that the composer was born and raised in the Swansea village of Penclawdd! In defending his decision, the Dean insisted: “Jesus said there is no other way to salvation except through him. If we start to say any other way is OK, that’s not true.” Well, as a Kiwi might translate Proverbs 26:9: “To ask a drongo to cite a saying of Jesus is like handing an axe to a pisshead.”

We call works of fiction “great” insofar as they save us from the self-fictionalisations that constitute the ego. Thus great drama delivers us from self-dramatisation, great comedy delivers us from self-seriousness, and so on. Reading great literature is a spiritual exercise, an askesis, an assault on the self-deceit with which even prayer can collude. Were I a Catholic taking the sacrament of penance, to the question “When did you make your last confession?” I would reply, “First, tell me, Father, when did you read your last novel?”

After the service, I thanked the minister, particularly for his fine sense of irony in giving a PowerPoint presentation of the Sermon on the Mount – particularly the Beatitudes in bullet points. All that was missing were Like/Don’t-Like thumbs.

At a recent Sunday service, the visiting minister (“I’m keen on interactive worship”) had us break into groups and share our “faith experiences” with each other, i.e., engage in autobiographical idolatry. At such times I think bringing firearms to church isn’t such a bad idea.

And then there is the worship screen, with the words “Prayer Time” and an image of folded hands on a pale blue background. What a godsend! Ten seconds into praying I often forget what I’m doing; now, however, I can look up and say to myself, “Oh yeah …”, and then close my eyes again.

Imagine a Calvinist, hyper,
more pity you’ll find in a viper,
so full of elation
at hell and damnation –
no need to imagine – it’s Piper!

How do you answer the idiotic question, “What car would Jesus drive?” You roll your eyes and sigh, “Christ on a bike!”

It is not that people today are more stupid than they used to be, but we are, I’m sure, less patient, more slow-averse, and so less likely to take the time to make sure that our thinking is joined-up and our arguments are coherent, and more likely to break the speed limits of reason and crash our cogitations into unwarranted conclusions. Which I guess is pretty stupid of us after all.

As an expat, here, in acronyms, is what I miss about the US: NRA, GOP, KKK, SBC, NYPD, ADX, CIA, and NHS (oops, sorry, the US doesn’t have an NHS).

What is a Republican-controlled Congress but a form of Capitol punishment?

Why does the Right persist in climate change denial? Because it is in the interests of big business, of course. But also because climate change is the perfect weapon of mass destruction, as it not only makes no demands on the defence budget, it also targets the enemy, i.e., the poor, with the precision of a drone.

If you had actors speaking the lines of the Republican candidates at the presidential debates, you’d think it was political satire, wouldn’t you? They make the blah, blah, blah of inebriants sound like intelligent speech.

So who does one support as the Republican presidential candidate? Throw in Cheney as Carson’s VP and I’d go for the Ben-and-Dick Option. It’s the perfect combination of buffoonery and barbarity.

Another suggestion for a First Things name-change after its intellectually and morally cringe-worthy Buycott blitzkrieg in the first skirmish in this year’s Christmas kulturkampf, the Battle of Starbucks: The Exceedingly Light Brigade.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
                   Someone had blundered.

I used to have immense respect for the theological acumen of William Stringfellow and Marilynne Robinson, but no longer. After all, neither has a degree in theology.

A recent report in the journal Current Biology, based on the research of 7 universities which studied almost 1200 children in countries including the US, Turkey, and China, concludes: “Children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions – Christianity and Islam – were less altruistic than children from non-religious households.” Which I should think is neither surprising nor unsurprising, nor is the consistency with which religious parents overestimate how nice their children are. Book dedications like “… and to my awesome kids Deodatus and Dorcas ...” – what a chortle they bring to the cynical reader.

What’s the difference between Fort Hood, Texas, the largest US military installation in the world, and AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys?  On any given game-day, you will find a greater military presence at AT&T Stadium.

I suffer terribly from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it’s just begun to kick in: from November until April, no baseball. Apathy, lethargy, tearfulness – it’s time to re-read Smith, Giamatti, and Will, and to re-watch Bull Durham, Major League, and Field of Dreams.  That, and with Rogers Hornsby, “stare out the window and wait for spring.” Easter gives you some idea of the joy of Opening Day.

The human is a bewilderedbeast. What faith does is to transform bewilderment from a burden into a blessing.

“It is the problem of our age: hatred against Germans poisons everyone’s mind…. To sum up, this is what I really want to say: Nazi barbarism evokes the same kind of barbarism in ourselves.… We have to reject that barbarism within us, we must not fan the hatred within us, because if we do, the world will not be able to pull itself one inch further out of the mire” (Etty Hillesum, from Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 2002). For “Germans” and “Nazi”, read “ISIS”, and after the sorrow and the sense of helplessness bordering on hopelessness, you have my reaction to the Paris massacre.

The Sermon on the Mount is an ethical promissory note addressed to people who would only begin to exist after Easter.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Paris and my enemy

Image credit @jean_jullien
Because there was nothing else to be done, I said to myself: I will read Hemingway and drink wine and think only of Paris. So I sat all afternoon by the window and read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his Paris years, and I drank wine and remembered Paris.

Do you remember our first time in Paris? We were staying in that bad hotel and I was irritable because of your disappointment, and the more irritable I was the more disappointed you became. That’s how it always was with us. But the puny moods we brought with us were no match for Paris. We walked along the Seine. We roamed the boulevards. We looked at paintings and old buildings, loafed in cafés. We went in and out of shops along the rue St-Dominique, buying nothing. You ate fruit and I had croissants and dipped them in my coffee. A gypsy girl begged you to let her draw your portrait.

Every day I read Simenon. I bought mouldering paperbacks from the melancholy vendors along the river. At night we ate in cheap restaurants and walked back along the lighted streets and made love in our cheap hotel with the windows open and the lights of Paris gleaming on our skin. The city is older than Christianity, older than morality. It is good sometimes to make love in a place like that, to do it like a pagan, without thought or inhibition or the hurtful bewildering labyrinth of moral meanings. I knew you were thinking of someone else, I understood that, but in Paris it did not matter.

After the September 11 attacks on New York, the French newspaper Le Monde ran an article titled nous sommes tous Américains, we are all Americans.

We found a bar on the rue de la Roquette with cheap beer and loud music and we went there on the first night, and the next night I went alone because it was only midnight and I could not bear to sleep while Paris was awake.

I asked you, Did you catch the news? Did you hear? Did you know that Paris was attacked today? How can anyone hate Paris? How could anybody wish it harm? What is the point of being a man if somewhere in this world a man like me, my flesh and blood, could hate the city of Paris and wish it harm?

One day we hired bicycles and went tearing through the streets while all the solemn trucks and obstinate little cars hurtled by. Drivers swerved, our bicycles clattered over the cobbles. We were fools to brave the busy streets of Paris; we were nearly killed; we were so happy.

St Geneviève, pray for us. For the city you love was under siege today. Teach us to pray for our cities and for peace in our times. Teach us to pray for the best thing that this world can ever give: a carefree street where a mother need not feel afraid. Teach us, if it is possible, to pray also for our enemies, to reach out bloodied hands to seek and find their human faces. Do not forsake us, holy Geneviève, though we are so far God, so far from one another.

All afternoon it rained. I drank wine and read Hemingway and tried to unravel the mystery of Paris and my enemy. I looked a long time at my own face in the mirror but I could not understand.

We are all Parisians.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

The Son is not great: Athanasius on orthodox christology

It is now a well-known fact that Arianism was not overcome by Athanasius, but by modern historical scholars overcoming Athanasius. But we can hardly blame Athanasius for the Arians, since he himself was not a modern historical scholar and so was not in a position to adhere to the guild rules.

Since we are so careful to uncover the true legacy of Arius, we should be equally diligent in our attempts to present the theological vision of Athanasius. It would be simply wrong to say that he disagreed with Arius' "low christology" and presented his own "high christology" in response. The stature of the Son was not the heart of the question. As Athanasius points out, scripture does not depict the Son as more illustrious than other creatures. Divinity is not measured in greatness.

The angels worship the Son, Athanasius observes, but not because he is greater than them. “The angels served [the Son] as one who is other than them.” If all that was required to be eligible as an object of worship was greatness, then we would all be free to worship other creatures instead of God. But Cornelius is told not to worship Peter, and John is told not to worship the angel. The Son is worshipped “not as one who is greater in glory, but as being other… than all creatures.”

As you read through the works of Athanasius, you do not uncover a scheme to elevate the status of the Son, but the astonishment of one who has discovered the humility of God. In De Incarnatione, he addresses those who wonder why the Son should come as a human instead of one of the “other more noble parts of creation… as the sun or moon or stars or fire or air?” Because, he suggests, the Lord did not come to “be put on display but to heal… One being put on display only needs to appear and dazzle the beholders; but one who heals and teaches does not simply sojourn, but is of service to those in need.”

Which leads me to wonder whether the categories of "high" and "low" christology are still useful at all as indicators of orthodoxy. If we think of "high christology" as emphasising the divinity of Christ, we find that Apollinaris undoubtedly had a "high" christology, but he's still a heretic. If we are tempted to think that there can be some negotiated compromise between the two, we need only remember poor old Eutyches, and his fateful mediating ousia. The language can be retained only if they cease to be poles on a continuum. A faithful christology is simultaneously "high" and "low"--a theology of the high made low for our sake.

The Son is not merely greater than us, but is entirely different to us. The good news of the gospel is that he becomes one of us. Salvation rests in the blessed union of difference and solidarity in the person of Christ.

Saturday 7 November 2015

The Widow’s Might: a sermon for Pentecost 24

Ah, bless – the story of the Widow’s Mite. Isn’t it sweet? Don’t we just love it? Don’t we just love her – this dear little old lady, poor as a church mouse, who yet gives what she has for the upkeep of the church? Isn’t that how the traditional homilies go? Or – taking out the pensioner and generalising – it’s not how much you give, it’s the spirit in which you give it – isn’t that the moral of the story? It’s just the passage to preach on a Gift Day, or, even better, when you’re trying to whip up enthusiasm for the Building Fund when your church is undergoing some serious renovation because of the crumbling fabric or those blasted new “health and safety” regulations. And the subtext, of course, is, “Hey, mate, you’ve got more than a mite, give generously.”

And now you’re thinking, “Uh oh, Fabricius is going tell us that that’s not what the story is about at all.” Who, moi? …

First – as always! – context, context, context! According to Mark, this is the last episode in the Holy Week teaching ministry of Jesus in the Temple, where he has been going daily to stir up trouble with his good news – telling challenging stories, deftly sidestepping awkward questions, astonishing everyone with his charismatic authority, and, above all, infuriating the religious elite with his anti-establishment rhetoric. In the passage immediately preceding the story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus warns the crowds about the teachers of the law – the biblical scholars and theologians. He mocks the way they walk around in fancy clerical dress, bask in the obsequious public greetings and flattery of the hoi polloi, reserve high-table seats at civic and religious functions, and – a separate sentence – how they “take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” under a pretence of piety (12:40).

Widows getting ripped off by the managers of religion – that’s the set-up for the story that follows. And to emphasise the importance of what Jesus is about to say, Mark not only has Jesus sit facing the Temple treasury (12:41), the customary position from which to make definitive declarations (i.e., ex cathedra), he also reintroduces the disciples to the narrative, as Jesus calls them from the wings where they’ve been waiting since the end of chapter 11 to stage front and centre (12:43).

Now: lights, camera, action! Picture thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in the Court of Women, just inside the Court of Gentiles – it’s Israelites only here. And no elders taking the collection in the Temple, rather people throwing their offerings into these huge ornate coffers. Or even more likely, Jesus is facing the treasury itself, where sits a priest to whom the worshippers declare the amount of their offerings – no discreet little envelopes, everything visible and audible – before tossing them into the chests.

Remember, the Temple wasn’t only the house of God, the central sanctuary for worship, it was an economy in itself. There were literally thousands of people employed there, from priests at the top to builders, repairmen, cleaners, moneychangers, and the numerous other functionaries required to keep this micro-economy in the business of sacrifice ticking over. And the Temple treasury – it served as the central bank of Jerusalem, and it held enormous assets, funded by the regular collection of taxes.

So there Jesus sits – and watches the scene like a hawk, noting every detail. First, there are the rich folk who drop in loads of money. And then along comes a “poor widow”. That dear little old lady? Probably not. People just did not live that long in first-century Palestine. Women married in their early teens and were lucky to reach fifty. And widows – they were part of Israel’s underclass, stereotypes of the powerless and oppressed, and in a patriarchal society, a man’s world, they had to be tough just to survive. The younger they were, the more they were considered a danger to the community, perennial temptations to the married family man, so social exclusion often compounded their personal vulnerability. And with no guaranteed inheritance, money was always a problem, not least because of their exploitation by unscrupulous scribes, the teachers of the Law whom Jesus has just condemned.

Just how dirt poor this woman was is suggested by her offering – the two copper coins are Greek lepta, the smallest currency in circulation. Nevertheless, measly as her offering is, Jesus says (in the words of a modern translation, The Message): “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford – she gave her all” (12:43-44).

Of course the traditional interpretation of this passage – that in this woman we have a model of costly, self-sacrificial faith – is not wrong. “Blessed are the poor” – indeed. But that’s not the point. Nor is it wrong to see here an attack on the affluent – Jesus was always having a go at the moneyed classes: “Woe to the rich!” – indeed. But that’s not the point either. It’s the institution, the system, that Jesus has in his sights, the way the Temple systemically fleeces the poor – the system and its suits, the professionals, the managers who ensure that the system runs smoothly; fleeces the poor, and worse, humiliates the poor, taking not only their money but also their dignity. For remember, the transactions occur in the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

The Director of our Windermere Centre Lawrence Moore imagines the scene as the widow reaches “the head of the queue. A public argument begins. ‘You’re winding me up, aren’t you? This won’t buy you anything! What? This is genuinely all you have? Well, for once, I’m going to make an exception. Seeing as you’ve nothing more to give, I’m going to accept your pitiful offering. I’m far too generous for my own good.’” The woman is shamed. Nothing could be worse, not even indigence, in a culture where honour is all. It was bad enough that the widow left an act of worship without any money, but that she left it without her pride …

And a final, terrible irony – context again! – what happens next? Jesus leaves the Temple for the last time, storms out, no doubt shaking the dust off his feet. All the disciples, as obtuse as ever, can say is, “Hey, Jesus, wow! What an awesome cathedral!” They haven’t learned a thing. Jesus replies, “Impressed, are you, lads? Take a good look then, because soon it will all be a heap of rubble” (13:1-2). All that money – and for what? A condemned building! Rather like buying stock in the Titanic. Lawrence draws the conclusion: “Beware the building fund” – that is, when we forget that the church is a people not a steeple, and that mission, not mortar, is the reason for our being, for then these bricks become a blot on the landscape rather than a blessing for the community.

Finally, this. John F. Kennedy famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Jesus, you might say, inverts this declaration: “Ask not what you can do for the Temple, ask what the Temple can do for you.” Which for Christians becomes: “Ask not what you can do for the church, ask what the church can do for you.” Not now the walls but what goes on within the walls. People like me – ministers – are always banging on about what you should be doing for the church. Of course! But perhaps we all need to stop and ask, “Just what kind of church are we being told to be doing it for?” More precisely, just what kind of church are we?

Is it a church that does what it been called by God, sent by Jesus, and empowered by the Spirit to do – to be a sign of the kingdom, a witness to truth and peace, a mediator of grace and mercy, a contributor to human well-being and flourishing – and an in-your-face protest to any power that would deny or thwart the loving-kindness of God for all people, for all creation?

Or is it a church that has sold its birthright for a mess of pottage: a therapeutic church that massages our self-esteem; an anti-intellectual church that stifles critical thinking; a managerial church that is obsessed with its own institutional survival; an otherworldly church in the business of hawking afterlife insurance; an I-vow-to-thee-my-country church, or a church resigned to its marginalisation by the state, a church that openly or silently colludes in government lies, injustice, and violence? Are we a church obsessed with saving our souls, let alone with saving our buildings, or are we a church dedicated to expending ourselves on those who are not with us, and may even be against us, prodigal with our love, imitating the self-expenditure we see in Christ, who, as Paul wrote, “rich as he was, spent it all on us, becoming poor so that we would be rich” (II Corinthians 8:9)?

Rich or poor, our true wealth is in God. Many or few, our true strength is in God. Old or young, our true vitality is in God. Is that what our being Christian, and being church, means to us and communicates to others? That is indeed a cause – the cause of Jesus – for which, like the widow, to give our all, such that mite becomes might, as the power of God is perfected in human weakness.


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