Monday 31 August 2015

Sabbatical diary

2 a.m. I wake to the sound of mechanical crickets chirping. I have set the alarm to sound like crickets because it helps to minimise the nausea and shock that I have always felt upon waking. I get up and turn on the lamp and collapse into the red chair at the desk. I strike a match and light the candle. It brings to life the icon of the mother of God on the corner of the desk. I drink some water and start to write. I wish I were dead. I wish I could have coffee. I would trade my soul for one cup of coffee. But if I go down to boil the kettle it will wake the children, and since the beginning of the world nobody has ever written anything with children awake inside a house. I finish my six hundred words, it takes an hour, and then I put out the candle and turn off the lamp and crawl wounded back to bed. The whole time I have barely been awake, more dead than alive. I have always found it easier to write in that state. I would be truly happy if I could figure out how to write books while fully asleep. But this is the next best thing.

5.30 a.m. I wheel the bicycle out on to the street. The road gleams blackly under the yellow lamps. There are no sounds except for two clicks as my shoes engage the pedals, and then the blessed whirring of the wheels. The sudden motion creates a cold wind against my face. It is a good thing to be cold and moving on a bicycle before first light. A thin fog hangs over the water as I wind my way down into the national park. After the first hour, big slabs of sunlight fall across the road and the skin thrills to feel the sudden warmth. I do not know if today will be a blessing or a curse, a mother or a stepmother, as the Greeks used to say. But when I feel the first light on my face I bless the day and my spirits glide like whirling wheels within me.

9 a.m. At a desk in the corner of the library I have been reading Erasmus. A retired scholar left his Erasmus collection to the library. Shelves upon shelves of Erasmus. The collected works of Erasmus are legion. They are handsomely bound in thick white volumes. I picked one up idly one day to thumb through it, and before I knew what I was doing I had read six, seven, eight of the big things. I like Erasmus, he is my kind of author and my kind of human being. He agreed with Luther about a lot of things but he never leaves me feeling pale and claustrophobic the way Luther does. I have no reason to be reading so much Erasmus. But I have never needed reasons before so I don’t see why I should start looking for one now.

1 p.m. At the cafe I find a place out in the sun. I brought a book with me but I don’t read it, I just sit there in the sun. A rumpled newspaper lies abandoned on the table. Every so often it opens in the breeze and the page inside shows Miley Cyrus in full colour, nearly nude in knee-high silver boots, mouth painted red. She undresses for me like this whenever the wind blows back the page. Each time I give her an appreciative glance and then the front sheet falls modestly back to cover her. Near the entrance to the cafe a young couple sit facing one another across a table. They are newlyweds, to judge from their age and the self-conscious gold rings on their fingers. The whole time I am here they sit facing one another, gazing in adoring silence into the screens of their phones.

3.30 p.m. On the train a crazy man is harassing a teenage girl. She looks thin and frightened. He bellows at her about Bob Hawke, the former Australian prime minister who holds the world record for drinking 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. “One of the greatest men who ever lived,” the crazy man says, “if not the greatest. Even if I could beat Bob Hawke’s record I would never try. That’s what my father taught me. He told me, even if you could beat Bob Hawke’s record you would never try, out of sheer respect. Take me for instance,” he shouts confidentially at the girl, “I might seem like just an ordinary guy, but the world needs ordinary guys to make the great men stand out, the men of genius. There can’t be great people unless there are ordinary people too, do you understand? Take Bob Hawke for instance. Could Bob Hawke have existed unless I existed too? Obviously not. You see my point.” We saw his point – the girl, me, and everybody else on the train. In Sydney you are certifiably insane just for opening your mouth to speak to any other person on a train. Let alone sermonising for twenty minutes about Bob Hawke.

8.30 p.m. I have been reading a Russian novel about a gambler. There is a peculiar seductiveness in the thought of losing everything. The gambler is seized by an impulse to shake his fist at fate, to turn losing into an act of spiritual defiance, to fall as Lucifer fell, not out of ignorance and certainly not to gain anything but because standing firm is perceived as an obscure insult against the free spirit. I have never gambled anything in my life. If you never gamble so much as a button, you will never be tempted to gamble your last button either. I have no doubt that many people find gambling (that is, find losing) quite purifying. But for my part I avoid it. Not because I have any pious objection to it but because my own innate belief in fate runs so deep. Why should I give the gods a stick to beat me with? They do a good enough job on their own. If life has taught me anything, it's that you can lose perfectly well without having to gamble.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Homily for Helen: a funeral sermon

As her minister, I had known Helen for 17 years when she died in a nursing home a few weeks ago, aged 89. Born in poverty in a Scottish mining village, with self-sacrificial support from her parents and immense personal dedication, Helen won a scholarship to a local private school. A lover of Latin, she went on to study modern languages at the University of Glasgow, and became a language teacher. Shortly after her husband died five years ago, Helen was stricken, inexorably, with Alzheimer’s disease. (King Lear: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”) My homily followed tributes given by one of a myriad of grandchildren and the second-born of her five sons. 

Sons, grandchildren, friends:

Andrew, Louise, thank you. We have all listened arrectis auribus – “with ears erect”, that is, very attentively. Got to have some Latin for Helen, right?

What comes quickly to mind when I think of Helen? Three things: dress, character, feedback. In dress, simplex munditiis (I’m on a Roman roll!) – “simple in adornments” – that understated elegance, expressed in those nicely coordinated pastel colours. In character, well, listen to a different translation of those wonderful verses in Galatians I just read: “… affection for others … a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people … loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (Galatians 5:22-23, The Message). Isn’t that Helen? And then feedback – to my sermons, I mean. When, after a service, people say to the minister something like “you’ve given us a lot to think about this morning,” sometimes that’s code for “I didn’t understand a thing you said!” or even “I don’t believe a word of it!” But with Helen, it was genuine, and more than just “something to think about” (which is fine for a lecture but not for a sermon), maybe even something that touched, moved, encouraged her. Which was certainly something that Helen’s gracious comments always did for me.

So we have heard about Helen in her youth and prime and golden years, her deep Christian faith and selfless attentiveness to others, and we are thankful for the ways she informed and shaped our lives. But over the last 4 years or so – well, the less said the better? Absolutely not. For that would be a cover-up, and it would be a denial of how, at least for me, Helen remained, to the very end, my teacher in tenderness. Yes, the full moon had become a “waning crescent”– the dulled perceptions, the fading speech, the mental disarray, all symptoms of an illness that has been poignantly called “the forgetting” (David Shrenk).

But am I not still “me” even when I have forgotten who I am, Helen not still Helen? And you – through Helen’s forgetting, did you not do the remembering for her, as you loved her in new ways: as you spoke her name, held her hand, talked about the “old days”, or were just there? In all these little ways, however helpless and hopeless you felt, you expressed to Helen: “How wonderful that you exist!” And even when her moments of recognition went into total eclipse, the eyes ebbing into a blank stare, did not Helen’s creator remember her, embrace her, shine his light in her darkness? Does not God, in his grace, remember those – us – who, with minds intact, yet forget him all the time?

Yes, in these portentous times when the so-called enlightened and progressive grow ever more impatient with long-term care for the infirm and vulnerable elderly, I trust you know that even in her affliction, there remained an indestructible preciousness, dignity, and sanctity to Helen. For that is the extraordinary, crazy idea that Jesus brought into the world: that people have value, infinite and immutable value, not because they are autonomous, rational, healthy, useful, productive – the go-to human of our woefully banal market-driven culture – but simply because they are loved. That is what it means to be human – to be created in love and for love and, finally, to be perfected by love, God’s love, in what Christians call eternal life. Yet even now, in Christ, this life begins … yes, even now this life begins …

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Reading history rashly

Theology. I’m mostly in this business because of the books. And I love them all: the great solid tomes, thicker than American steak; the slim pamphlets, as fine as the wings of a butterfly, and just as enchanting. 

I spend my days surrounded by books. Teaching theology, for me, feels a bit like being a kid left in charge of the sweets shop. We all know that I’m going to renounce my responsibilities at some point to partake of the goods, and I can’t guarantee that the affair will be dignified when it does occur.

I’ll admit that I don’t bring much refinement to the act of reading. I’m always a tumble of pages, elbows, slouches, and scribbles. More than a few of my books bear coffee-coloured scars of war. Reading, for me, is enjoyable only when it is reckless and undisciplined. This is why I find it wonderfully hilarious that I have been scheduled to teach a class on historical theology this coming semester. 

Historical theology, you see, is all about reading. Or, rather, readings, of which there are good and bad, disciplined and undisciplined. Good readings, we expect, will respect the autonomy of the text and its foreign world. Bad readings, on the other hand, will presume a greater continuity between our world and the ancient world than the evidence can possibly allow.

This last error is quite prevalent. We sometimes permit ourselves to fancy that our ideas finish a trajectory established in the early church—as though Origen invented the trumpet, but it took modern scholarship to discover jazz—or that the early Christians more or less said the same thing as us. Such readings would be fine were it not for the fact that the early Christians were clever and impetuous enough to have their own ideas.

It is learning about these foreign ideas—living in their strange land of the past—that is so particularly difficult. We are constantly at risk of rendering a heartlessly clinical account of Christian antiquity—one that is perfectly historical but not very theological. Frances Young sees the problem: “We have to do more than reconstruct a story of the past. A history of doctrine is not enough. But a systematic theology based on patristic proof-texts is not enough either.” 

It seems to me that the problem of historical theology is not so much that we struggle to bring the correct conceptual tools to the text, but that we—professional scholars—are perhaps the wrong kind of people to be reading ancient Christian texts. According to Morwenna Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa expected to be read by “prayerful Christians, not by textual scholars.” Teaching historical theology might just be as much about asking if we are rash enough to pray as it is asking whether we are disciplined enough to read. No amount of historical reconstruction can hope to match the great bridge of prayer that reaches across the centuries. In prayer, we are contemporaries.

The disciplined reading of historical theology blossoms when married with a reckless spirituality.  Which is why I am thrilled to teach historical theology. I can think of nothing less respectable than mixing spirituality and scholarship. Perhaps historical theology, rightly undertaken, will not meddle with the past, but will be quite open to the possibility of the past meddling with us. 

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Dire doodlings

When I was an impecunious student at Oxford, Angie and I courted over suppers of bargain Soave and the most delicious lasagne this side of Napoli. So when we had lasagne the other night, of course I exclaimed, “Another PB, babes!” “It’s Marks and Spencer,” she replied. “Oh,” I said. The Soave was now a Classico Superiore, but bitter was the taste of it.

“I want the Lord’s will to be done and I know He knows what’s best. But I just can’t figure out what He’s got in mind.” —The modest theodicy of Will Campbell’s Grandpa Will. A welcome theological upgrade on the usual presumptuous and sometimes monstrous defences of the deity.

It takes a long time to perfect praying for a short time, but only a short time to perfect not praying at all.

“It’s all very well to ask WWJD,” declared the Presbyterian preacher, “but the real question is WWPT.”

Until you’re about 5, you’re smart. Then gradually you get stupid. At 20, you’re real stupid, and you remain real stupid until you’re about 30. Then over the next decades, I’m afraid, you stay stupid, more or less. The less stupid we call sages or saints, the more stupid we call fucking idiots. Then you die. Then you meet the Lord: “Welcome home, stupid.”

Btw, you want to hear something really stupid: the church has no special liturgy for stupidity, its confession, absolution – and admission: “Lord, see you next week.”

The agency of the president at Communion is the agency of recipiency, in loco populi Dei. When she (or he) declares, “The Lord Jesus … said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’,” it is a versicle. The response is: “Lord Jesus, do this in remembrance of me.”

Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone is dumb enough not to open it, while Andy and Jim cover the back, Pete will use the Big Key – bam! – and I’ll be coming in to party with a takeaway and a six-pack.” —Revelation 3:20, Original Autograph

Jesus said, “Seek, and you will find.” Simone Weil said, “Wait, and you will receive.” Jesus said, “D’accord.”

The church should not worry about sins, for sins are not fatal to faith. Virtue, however – well, there is no idol-in the-making quite like virtue, particularly the virtue of integrity. This we learn from our Lord’s confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees.

Here’s how to tell if you’re among the righteous or the reprobate. A birthday card: on the cover an intimidating-looking nun saying “So many sins …,” on the inside adding “… so little time.” Observe the ambiguity. Do you take the message as an enticement – or a warning? Carpe natalem, yes – but for salaciousness or salvation? The way I took it, I’m obviously a reprobate.

“Kill the animals. ‘God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy’? Wuss words! No, trouble them, hunt them, shoot them, deprive them of their joy – that is God’s intent. Men, be studs, exalt yourselves above the animals, and decorate your homes with their heads. Especially big cats.” —Great White Hunter Walter Palmer, riffing on Father Zossima

Since God is pale, the pale is God. —From A Theology of White Privilege

We must brace ourselves for the plummet and crash of Western Civilization. It won’t be due to the fuck-you neoliberal market state with its economy of criminal corporate greed and mass pauperisation. It won’t be caused by global industrial defecation and anthropogenic climate chaos. Systemic racism, politically orchestrated xenophobia, culturally and historically ignorant foreign policy fiascos, and Manichaean-minded military misadventures in the Middle East – these too will not precipitate a new Dark Age. Nope, it’s SSM, stupid.

Have you noticed how, in SSM polemics, conservatives often use the term “the Christian view of marriage” when they mean “my church’s view of marriage”? Or the term “the traditional Christian view of marriage” which, when scrutinised, usually turns out to be so very 20th-century, e.g., in its acceptance of divorce and contraception? Word-Care Fails – or, more candidly, Word-Fraud A’s.

Of course, the point is the gender complementarity thing. And hasn’t that gone swimmingly, with a history of oppressive patriarchy and deep misogyny spun as “family values”. And behold the contemporary church wedding, where the principal liturgical figure is the wedding planner, and the marriage preparation happens not in the manse but at bridal boot camp, with evening courses in the theology of Premier Bride (US) or Perfect Wedding (UK). So here’s a thought: gay Christians, rather than destroying Christian marriage, might just help us discover what is Christian about it.

I understand that First Things is thinking of rebranding itself. On the short list are Reign Check, Postcards from Kish, The High Horse, and Dear Abbot. Personally, I’d just make a small change: First Thingies.

According to the Church Times (31 July), in the C of E support for both UKIP and plainsong are on the rise. Remembering the spirit of a famous Bonhoeffer barb about Gregorian chant, I hope the two trends are unconnected.

Another murder or mass murder, another child injured or killed by an automatic weapon – and another sincere and solemn expression of sorrow, another mantra of “in our thoughts and prayers”, and another parade of leaders in lockstep beating the drums of jail and justice. Perish any overwrought thought about gun control. That would be an overreaction, not to mention, at this time of shock and grief, an appalling solecism. Maybe tomorrow. Conveniently, the day that never comes.

 “As soon as you disarm your citizens you start to offend them, showing whether through cowardice or suspicion that you mistrust them; and on either score, hatred is aroused against you.” —Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, Il Principe Americano (XX)

Tesco is revamping the audio voice in its self-service checkout machines so that it will be friendlier and less shouty. I understand that a sound-alike voice of the late Revd. Dr. Ian Paisley, with its mellifluous Ulster accent, is being considered. Instead of “Unexpected item in the bagging area”, customers will be informed: “Shoplifters will be prosecuted!” When purchasing alcoholic beverages, they will be warned: “The breath of Satan is upon us!” If they drop an item, they will be told: “We will never bend the knee!” And after completing their transaction, instead of “Please take your items”, they will be commanded: “Go! Go! For God’s sake, go!”

Jesus said, “So you’re a Christian? Do I look like I care? Are you full of grace and free of bullshit, a fearless defender of the screwed, a fierce friend of the screwers, a festive drinking companion of the Nones? Are you like me? That’s all that matters.” —Matthew 7:21, Original Autograph

The crowd reacts: “Brother, are you born-again?” “He didn’t mention the Eucharist?” “Could you repeat that in tongues?” “Speak up, mate, I can’t hear a thing!” “Does he have to swear?” “What about the Chicago Statement?” “And the Westminster Confession!” “And penal substitution!” “The guy’s been reading too much James.” “He’s shorter in real life.” “He should speak to my pastor.” “Hey, isn’t that Kahil Gibran?”

According to a recent survey, trying to connect with your kids on social media makes the Top 10 in ways parents embarrass their children (and presumably grandchildren). Finally: a cogent reason for joining Facebook.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a Roman officer met him and begged for help: “Sir, my servant is sick in bed at home, unable to move and suffering terribly.” Matthew asked, “Does he have health insurance?” “No,” the officer said. “Try the ER,” advised Andrew.” “There is no ER,” said the officer. “Budget cuts.” “What about acupuncture?” Philip suggested. “No chance,” said the officer, “he’s trypanophobic.” “How about an herbal remedy?” offered James. “My brother swears by St. John’s Wort.” “What a lot of nonsense,” Thomas said scornfully. “What you need is a prayer chain,” asserted Peter, “strength in numbers.” Lifting his eyes to the heavens, Jesus sighed, “Ahem!” Then he turned, resolutely, toward the Roman Quarter. Meanwhile, Judas furtively took some bills out of his wallet and handed them to the officer. “This should cover a flight to Helvetia,” he muttered. —Matthew 8:5ff., Original Autograph

Monday 3 August 2015

Announcing a new conference series: Theology Connect

This week a new conference series will be launched. It's called Theology Connect and it aims to support theological reflection in the southern hemisphere. The first one will be held in Sydney in July 2016, on the theme of Divine Revelation and Human Reason. I had a chat to the managing director, Chris Green, to find out about this new venture.

BM: Was there a particular inspiration for this new series of conferences? How did you come up with the idea?

CG: While I was lecturing in systematic theology at Wesley Institute I started gathering advice from local theological colleges in Sydney. Eventually, this led to us envisioning a cross between an antipodal version of the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference and something more inclusive of biblical studies, like a southern hemispheric version of the Tyndale House study groups.

BM: How does it differ from other conferences?

CG: Theology Connect is about finding strategic locations in the southern hemisphere (or the “majority world”) and setting up conferences that move from the Bible to Christian theology. So while our first conference is set in Australia, we're also hoping to start some others in different parts of the world. Our plan for the Australian conference is to make it bi-annual, for it to be multi-denominational, and to bring in several international speakers each time. We want to keep a number of values in mind. First, our themes need to facilitate the participation of both biblical and theological scholars of different denominational backgrounds. So we like the more ecumenical themes, and want to stay away from divisive topics. Second, each conference needs to highlight keynote speakers that are of international quality alongside local voices at the same level. Third, our keynote speakers should be both academic as well as ministerial. Fourth, we want our keynotes to balance representation of traditional Reformed views alongside others with broader appeal.

BM: Who's it for?

CG: We're aiming primarily to serve scholars, students and interested ministers. In general, we want to see options increase for the professional development of theological scholars in Australia. We also want to see highly skilled students present alongside more seasoned scholars. For students, we are also going to offer a 700-level class after the conference, which will allow time spent at the conference to be translated into academic credit.

BM: The practice of Christian theology in Australia is very different from elsewhere in the world. The institutional settings are different. The ecumenical relationships are different. There are unique geographical challenges. Sometimes the theological questions need to be different too. What do you think are the main prospects for Christian theology in this part of the world?

CG: We don't have designs on changing the context in Australia, but we do want to challenge it in a couple of strategic ways. I agree that structural and geographical challenges shape some of the limitations theologians face here. For instance, conferences often focus on one particular international speaker who is brought in from the outside. That usually functions as a centerpiece for bringing in delegates. However, due to the significant expense incurred by international speakers, we tend to only choose the ones we already agree with. Many of our conferences in Australia tend to function more like ideological rallies. It’s a bit strange to me when we call these events “conferences,” since we don’t do much “conferring” with others at these kinds of events. I think the prospects for Australian theology are significant if we can develop a more internally interested environment. My own perspective on the theological scene in this part of the world is that Aussies are reluctant to read each other's work. Regardless of the motives for that tendency, I’d like these conferences to support a more mutually interested context.

BM: The topic of the first conference will be revelation and reason. Why was that theme chosen?

CG: We want to focus on something that will bring both biblical and theological scholars together, especially because we are holding the conference in Sydney and have a larger proportion of professionals there who are biblically trained. We also believe the “theological interpretation of Scripture” is a bit overdone right now. So we are focusing on reason and revelation in order to explore how to move from the Bible to theology, but with a bit more of a dogmatic aim. We want to explore how decisions concerning revelation and reason might have entailments for other aspects of theology too.

If you're interested in coming along next year, there's a call for papers up on the website. You can also keep in touch with them on Facebook.


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.