Monday 12 December 2016

A mere introduction to Christianity: A talk given to a gathering of Muslims and Christians in Swansea

Last year here at F&T I posted a letter of support and solidarity that our church had just sent to the mosques in Swansea in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the sudden wave of anti-Muslim activity in the UK. The large city-centre Sunni community not only thanked us for reaching out to them, they also invited us to their mosque for an evening which consisted of a brief introduction to Islam, a time for observation of their devotions, and a feast of delicious dishes. That was in March. On 30 November our church in turn welcomed the Sunni community for a similar evening. And what a wonderful event it was – terrific turnout, warm atmosphere, conversations both casual and probing. Only on the food front was the occasion, comparatively speaking, lacking in spice! 

As for our introduction to Christianity, muggins here volunteered to give it – and here it is. I really struggled over it – not only the subject matter but also the tone – hoping both to inform our Muslim guests and to challenge fellow Christians. I tinkered with it to the last minute, and finally delivered it (in my own anxious mind) as a “Hail Mary”. All I can say is that the response was hugely encouraging. And that we are all committed to making our time together a Casablanca moment – “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.

“Think thoughts that are as clear as possible, but no clearer; 
say things as simply as possible, but no simpler.” 
—William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

Many years ago, I got on a train in Swansea to go to London for a meeting. At Bridgend a guy got on and sat down next to me. He evidently noticed I was reading a book on theology, because several minutes later he pointed to it and said, “This Christianity stuff – what’s it all about?” “Where are you going?” I replied. “Cardiff,” he said. “Well,” I said, “if you were going to Paddington, I’d tell you about it. But to Cardiff – there is simply not enough time.” And here we are tonight with much less time – 20 minutes – yet I’m going to give it a go. Our guests will no doubt be interested in what Christians believe, so let’s start with a sprint through the Apostles’ Creed, which is a statement of faith dating from the 4th century in Rome, where it was probably used at baptisms, the rite of initiation into the church.

The Creed is in 3 parts. It begins with belief in God the “almighty, creator … of heaven and earth” (or as another ancient creed puts it, “of all things that we can see and all things that we can’t see”), a belief shared with Islam. But it also professes belief in God the “Father”, a belief not shared with Islam. There are 99 names for God in Islam, but “Father” is not one of them. Why do Christians call God “Father”? Because Jesus called God Father – abba in his native language, Aramaic, a word that expresses intimacy as well as authority – and Jesus told his followers to call God Father too. God the Father is not, of course, a literal Father (the proverbial old man with a beard), nor is God male (because God is not gendered) – God is Spirit; rather “Father” functions as a metaphor (“language at full stretch”, “old words doing new tricks”). But note well: not just a metaphor, as if “Father” were a decorative but expendable description, rather an indispensable and irreplaceable metaphor which the Christian believes discloses the reality of God.

Part 2 of the Creed then goes on to talk about Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah the Jews were (and still are) expecting. The Creed also calls Jesus “God’s only Son” – God is the Father of Jesus – and also “our Lord”. Because only God is the Lord, here the divinity of Christ enters the picture of what Christians believe. If the heart of Islam is the testimony, “There is no god but God and the Prophet is the Messenger of God”, the heart of Christianity is the testimony, “There is no god but the Father and Jesus is his Son”. We’re two-thirds of the way towards the Christian understanding God as Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – about which more in a minute.

The Creed then asserts that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary”. Christians should be aware that Muslims also revere Jesus as born of the Virgin Mary, while our Muslim friends might find it interesting that more liberal Christians reject the idea of a miraculous conception. Which means that Muslims are actually more orthodox than many Christians about this traditional teaching of the Church!

But then Muslims and Christians divide again when the Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”: because whereas the Koran states that Jesus was not, in fact, crucified, the crucifixion of Jesus is absolutely central to the New Testament narrative of Christ as Saviour. The New Testament has many images, models, metaphors (again!) for depicting the way the life and death of Jesus bring salvation, and for identifying the features of salvation – the forgiveness of sins, liberation from evil, victory over death, reconciliation with God. But while some Christians claim that you must hold a particular model of the atonement (as it is called) in order to be a “proper” Christian, most Christians agree that all the models are essential for assembling the big picture of what God has done for the world in Christ.

Next up in the Creed, the resurrection of the dead Jesus and his ascension to heaven. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus mean the vindication of the life and teaching of Jesus the crucified victim, the triumph of his love, and his enduring ability to surprise us with his presence. And here is another point of interest. While Muslims believe that Jesus was lifted up to heaven – though while alive, not dead – more liberal Christians (again!) do not think that God actually raised the dead body of Jesus, they believe in the idea of a “spiritual” rather than a physical resurrection. (Me, if it could be demonstrated that the body of Jesus rotted away in his grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian.)

Finally, Part 3 of the Creed, which begins “I believe in the Holy Spirit” – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus – whom you could think of as the presence of Jesus in the absence of Jesus, a kind of alter-ego of Jesus, for Christians believe that it is the Holy Spirit who makes the ascended Jesus real and present to us here on earth. The Creed then speaks of “the holy catholic Church”, the transnational body of believers around the world, analogous to what Muslims call the umma, the entire community of Islam bound together in faith; followed by “the communion of saints”, the transtemporal body of Christians through the ages, past, present and to come, here and in heaven. And because the heart of the message, the gospel, the good news which the Church proclaims can be summed up in “the forgiveness of sins”, it is this phrase that concludes the section on the Church in the Creed.

Finally, among the so-called “last things”, the Creed speaks of “the resurrection of the body”, that is, the transformation and perfection of who-we-are into the likenesses of the risen and ascended Jesus, thereafter to enjoy “the life everlasting”, eternal quality-time with God.

I would only add that what the Creed doesn’t say at its conclusion is also significant: it says nothing about hell. Unlike everlasting life with its joys, hell with its torments is not a necessary article of faith. And while it is true that the majority of Christians have affirmed eternal damnation, a significant minority, found particularly (but not exclusively) in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, has denied its inevitability, refusing to set limits to the grace and patience of God, and hoping and praying that, ransacked by Christ, hell will be empty.

Now you see why I told that guy on the train why a few minutes are inadequate for sketching what “this Christianity stuff is all about”! Still, I am going to be foolish enough briefly to address two further issues which I think are of fundamental importance for candid conversations between Christians and Muslims.

First, some of you may have heard about a young woman named Larycia Hawkins, an African-American professor of political science at a Christian liberal arts college called Wheaton. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, when violence against Muslims in the US spiked, Professor Hawkins went to her classes, and posted pictures of herself on social media, wearing the hijab, to demonstrate Christian solidarity with Muslims because, she asserted, we are both “people of the book … and worship the same God”. Five days later the College placed Professor Hawkins on “administrative leave” – for being off-message – and in February they agreed to a parting of the ways. Both the outcry against and the support for what Professor Hawkins did and said were huge.

So: do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

The doctrine of the Trinity suggests that we do not. Christians, of course, believe in God’s unity, but they insist that this unity is constituted by the eternal communion of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as experienced in worship and articulated in our narrative of salvation. For Christians the Trinity is not an add-on. The threefold relations simply are who the one God is. On this view, clearly Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

On the other hand, the fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity took a long time to develop, around four centuries in fact. Which raises the question, who did Christians think they were worshipping in the meantime? Clearly God’s “‘oneness’ was both historically prior to and, to an extent, logically privileged over [God’s] ‘threeness’. The move historically was from oneness to triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way that ‘fit’ the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of ‘oneness’” (Bruce McCormack). Moreover, the first Jews who became Christians, and indeed Jesus himself, worshipped the one God of Israel. Observe also that the Arabic word for God, Allah, used in the Koran, is the same word Arabic Christians use for God, and when they have religious conversations with their Muslim neighbours, there is never the slightest suspicion that they might be talking about different Gods. Even if a different sense is given to the name Allah by Muslims and Christians, the referent, the One to whom the name refers, is the same.

Personally, as a Christian minister, I thank God, Allah, when Muslims press us to articulate what we mean when we say that God is Trinity; because, to be honest, many Christians themselves seem to think that it means that God is three “persons” in the sense of three individuals with different personalities forming a kind of divine family or society. But if there is one thing the Trinity is not, it is not that!

Second – and to conclude: I’ve focussed on Christian doctrine, but frankly what Christians believe, if it isn’t intrinsically connected with how we believe, if it isn’t embedded in a way of life, in discipleship – well, it’s worth less than nothing. The New Testament speaks of the “obedience of faith”, and of “true worship” as the offering of our everyday lives to God. No believing without doing, no prayer without practice. And for Christians, what we do, our daily practices, are summed up in the Sermon on the Mount at the start of Jesus’ teaching ministry, in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the middle, and in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats at its conclusion. There we learn that the defining characteristics of Christian behaviour – Christian identity – are humility and nonviolence, compassion and generosity, hospitality and mercy, with particular attention to the poor, the excluded, the stranger. Jesus says that when Christians ignore them, they ignore him; and when Christians or non-Christians befriend them, they befriend him.

Which is why Christians dare not speculate about the salvation of other people: judgment is God’s business, not ours, and as Jesus often observes, judgment will be full of surprises. Christians are called to love others no matter who they are or what their faith, and whether they like us or hate us.

Needless to say, Christians as often as not have failed to observe the radical teaching of Jesus. May God forgive us, and may our neighbours forgive us too.

Sunday 4 December 2016

The sad, sad, sad story of Mr. K

One cold December day, an ordinary American guy called Mr. K was walking along the road towards the future when he was mugged by Modernist and left for dead.

Postmodernist came by, heard Mr. K moan, and gave him another kicking.

Evangelical came by and left Mr. K an autographed copy of a Red-Letter Bible.

Roman Catholic came by and left Mr. K a get-well card with a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes on it.

Anglican came by and left Mr. K a glass of sherry.

Progressive came by and left Mr. K a skinny latte.

Jehovah’s Witness came by – correction: two Jehovah’s Witnesses came by – talked to the unconscious Mr. K about End-Time signs for twenty minutes, and left a tract.

Orthodox came by and made the sign of the cross.

Baptist came by and didn’t make the sign of the cross.

Presbyterian came by and looked cross.

Charismatic came by and garrulously shouted at Mr. K.

Quaker came by and kept contemplatively shtum before Mr. K.

Methodist came by and sang a hymn to Mr. K. Then three more.

Prosperity Gospel came by and stole Mr. K’s wallet.

Humanist came by and left some flowers.

New Atheist came by and drank the sherry. Then came back for the flowers.

Finally, a man with ostentatiously coiffured hair the colour of the orange juice he was drinking came by in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce Phantom. The man told his chauffeur to slow down, rolled down his window, thought “Loser!”, then told the chauffeur to step on it. Startled into consciousness by the acrid smell of the man’s cologne, Mr. K survived. Indeed, he prospered. In his prayers he always thanked God for that Good Samaritan who stopped with (what he thought were) the smelling salts, and he told anyone who would listen, “He’s just the kind of caring man we need for President.”

And so it came to pass. Of course, Mr. K was never able to put a face, let alone a name, to the bearer of the aroma of ammonia he never forgot. And sad, sad, sad to say, in October 2016 he lost his shirt at a casino in New Jersey and cursed the day he was born.

Monday 14 November 2016

Cock-a-Doodle Doodlings (Mark 14:72)

“Ah, grief makes us precise!” —Leonard Cohen

I have never been theologically troubled by the so-called problem of evil that theodicists vainly address because, frankly, I have always believed that God is insane.

And that God has a Pythonesque sense of irony. To wit, on Election Day we woke (I kid you not) to a toilet with a leaking pipe. As the morning wore on and our domestic urine accumulated in the bowl, I thought, “Can this be a sign from the Lord?” Yes It Could.

Well, at least the star-splattered banner is still waving – waving goodbye “o’er the land of the Me and the home of the grave.”

Were I a political cartoonist, I would draw a picture of (the Statue of) Libertas contorting her massive body of copper, iron, and steel to bend over, place her head between her legs, and kiss her green ass au revoir.

After Trump’s victory was confirmed, feeling more depressed about the US than I have since the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, Malcolm and Martin – and so studiously avoiding the kitchen cabinet containing toxic household chemicals – I decided to cheer myself up. So I spent some time with GM’s sonnets of desolation and listened to LCs’ perfectly timed parting testament, “You Want It Darker”. (RIP, Lenny, once cracked, now broken: may light perpetual shine upon you.)

Anything 2016ish in Nostradamus about both Vlad the Impaler (1431) and Bram Stoker (1847) being born on November 8th?

Of course post-Election Day I feel humiliated and embarrassed to be an American. After the Vietnam years, the Nixon years, the Reagan years, the Dubya years – well, it’s like riding a bike. I’ve also grown adept at softening my New York accent and telling people I’m from Toronto.

By the impotence invested in me, I hereby declare Thanksgiving 2016 to be a National Day of Fasting. Or at least put bitter herbs in the Pumpkin Pie.

Andrew Sullivan has quotably asked, “How can you tell when a political ideology has become the equivalent of a religion?” More to the point for evangelical white-Americans (NB: “evangelical” is adjectival, “white-Americans” is the substantive), how can you tell when your religion has become the equivalent of a cultural/political ideology?

Ignoring or spinning Mark 8:36-38, many Christian have sold their soul to the devil. Of course. They got a good deal. Indeed Trump-like, it makes them smart: they won’t be declaring their profits on their income tax returns.

The go-to theologian for our troubled times has surely got to be Bonhoeffer. WWBD? Dietrich I mean, not the so-called “American Bonhoeffer” Eric Metaxas, whose inexcusable ignorance of modern German intellectual history and ideological distortions – nay, perversions – of DB’s life and thought should guarantee him a Trump Tower of a residence in the 8th circle of the Inferno.

Some Christian musings on the election of the “Remember, our God reigns” and “We always have prayer” kind – they are not false but they are not real. There is no fierce grief, no posture of resistance, no energy to join combat against the Lie, and no realisation that God is not useful, helpful, or advantageous. This is not the world of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (see Brueggemann) – or of Jesus.

What is time but a mortal wound that God heals with the astringent salve of the Spirit?

Don’t knock boredom. It is the source of all good fiction.

By all means practice introspection: it will acclimatise you to the torments of damnation.

Bad pastors command, good pastors advise – though of course they think their advice is infallible.

Advice from an old fart to newlyweds: pay close attention to the ecology of your marriage, lest, from a process of erosion, it slowly crumbles behind your very eyes.

In some contemporary liturgies there should be rubrics for snoring.

When it comes to the web, we like to think we are spiders when in fact we are flies.

What’s the difference between a care home for people with dementia and a Starbucks full of people with iPhones and laptops? You’ll find more interpersonal skills among folk in the former.

Street-wear tee shirts for the dwindling number of those whose iPhones aren’t prosthetic: the inscription reads “Watch where I’m going, apphole!”

How would I describe the social imaginary of people addicted to social media? As an anti-social imaginary, or an imaginary imaginary.

Why did I become a minister? Because I’d heard that it’s a vacation. My hearing isn’t so good.

Everybody muddles through life. Saints are simply those who muddle through it better than the rest of us.

Who do you suppose Trump sees when he looks in the mirror, assuming he sees anyone at all (see the doodling about Vlad the Impaler)? Probably himself. Like most of us. It is the saints who see someone else, “the concealed likeness, always ahead in its ambush” (R. S. Thomas), and ask, “Why do you look at me like that?”

Tuesday 8 November 2016

To write new books is human; to publish old ones divine

Some wonderful new books were brought into the world this year. I love them and am grateful for their safe arrival. My favourites have included Rowan Williams's brilliant study of tragic theatre, The Tragic Imagination (one of the best books he's ever written, if you ask me); Richard Hays' masterful and memorable Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels; Ian McEwan's delightful novel Nutshell, narrated by Hamlet as a baby in the womb; Stephen Backhouse's biographical page-turner, Kierkegaard: A Single Life; Geoff Thompson's timely theological provocations, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many; Leo Damrosch's gorgeously illustrated Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake; Tom Wainwright's entertaining and sobering Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel; and Sandy Maisel's informative American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction (terrific series, by the way).

And what about the books I haven't got to yet but am saving for a rainy day? Larry Hurtado's Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World looks especially good; so does Catherine Chin's edited volume Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family and Bruce Gordon's John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography and Fleming Rutledge's The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

I greet you, all you new-born books! May the world treat you kindly! May God's blessing keep you always, may your wishes all come true! May you stay forever young! May you make your authors rich, or at least not destitute!

But even better than all the new books, the past year has been a season of new editions. These are the books that I have loved the most during the past twelve months, these labours of publishing love, these tributes to the human spirit, these hopeful gestures towards culture and a common good. Here are the new editions that I'm talking about, all published within the last 12 months:

Martin Luther, The Annotated Luther (Fortress Press) – 4 big volumes so far, with 2 more still to come, very handsomely produced with big wide margins and an inviting layout, each text nestled in a wealth of historical information (footnotes, anecdotes, woodcuts and other illustrations from the period, extensive introductions to each work, etc). One would always prefer to be reading Erasmus: but if one has to dip into Luther from time to time, this is the way to do it. Fortress Press are a mighty engine-house when it comes to new English editions: if you haven't got the 17 volumes of their Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, then I chide you.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Other Writings (Everyman's Library) – 1200 pages of Burkean sanity in the always-lovely Everyman's Library edition, red cloth, gilded spine, gold ribbon, just like the books they made in France before the revolution. This one's not so good on Burke's major works (only the Reflections is included in full, the rest are excerpted), but it does make room for innumerable little pamphlets and speeches and letters and whatnot, always worth reading for Burke's inimitable prose style.

T. S. Eliot, The Poems of T. S. Eliot (Johns Hopkins University Press) – 2 massive volumes, about 2,000 pages' worth, all that you could ever want (and more) of this most modern of modern poets. And since Eliot was also perhaps the greatest essayist of the 20th century (Virginia Woolf is just as good – but who else is in their league?), how could I be forgiven if I failed to mention the same publisher's multi-volume critical edition of Eliot's Complete Prose?

Reinhold Niebhur, Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (Library of America) – Well technically this was more than a year ago, it came out in April 2015, but who's counting? For less than 30 bucks you can get your hands on 800 pages of Niebuhr, including four complete books and a whole archive of sermons, lectures, prayers, etc, much of it never published before.

John Maynard Keynes, The Essential Keynes (Penguin) – Did you know how much fun it can be to spend an afternoon reading Keynes? Do yourself a favour and give it a try. This goodly ten-dollar paperback crams in 600 pages of Keynes – not only the economics but also a sample of his immensely insightful and entertaining thoughts on politics, culture, biography, etc. Keynes tends to be remembered only as an economist which is a shame since he was one of the most cultured characters of his day, a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a scintillating essayist with wide interests and boundless curiosity.

And the other day this one arrived, the mother of all new editions, a massive scholarly labour, a playground erected over the crater of the theologians: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith: A New Translation and Critical Edition (WJK) – 2 volumes, well over a thousand pages, newly translated by Terrence Tice and Catherine Kelsey, with thousands of footnotes on Schleiermacher's German vocabulary, sources, etc, and with a most marvellous 60-page "analytical index of topics" that provides a key to Schleiermacher's intricate tapestry of concepts. I say this without a trace of irony: I read the whole index right through and found it riveting. I was riveted! It's a wonderful new edition and an exceptional achievement.

So there you have it, reader. By all means read the new books. But by even more means, read the old ones too. For to write new books is human; to publish old ones divine.

Friday 28 October 2016

Postgraduate seminar on Karl Barth: what to read?

This year it was Origen; next year I’ll be teaching a postgraduate seminar on the theology of Karl Barth. It’s a 12-week course and I’m trying to decide on the readings. Barth presents special challenges here, given the huge slow expansiveness of his best work. The best seminar in the world would be one on Church Dogmatics IV – but where on God’s good earth are the students who would agree to read the requisite 3,000 pages?

Anyway, I’ve come up with three possible approaches so far, and I’d love to know what you think. Which of these would you prefer if you were doing a seminar like this? Which texts you would choose if you were the teacher? Anyone else out there have experience with a course like this?

First Idea. Barth’s early theology

The Word of God and Theology (2 weeks)
Epistle to the Romans (5 weeks)
Göttingen Dogmatics (5 weeks)

Second Idea. Barth’s dogmatics

Göttingen Dogmatics (5 weeks)
Michael Allen’s Church Dogmatics reader (5 weeks)
The Humanity of God (2 weeks)

Third Idea. Barth’s doctrine of creation

Parts of Church Dogmatics III/1 – creation and covenant (6 weeks)
Parts of Church Dogmatics III/3 – providence and evil (6 weeks)

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Election day doodlings

The trick to ending a sermon is to stop without concluding. Paul Valéry observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” So too a sermon.

Why did God give us clothes? Not to inhibit the sex-drive. (Fat chance!) No, but so that we should think. Or haven’t you noticed that it’s almost impossible to cogitate in the nude?

God said, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?” The man answered, “The woman you put here with me gave me the fruit. She doesn’t understand me” (Genesis 3:11b-12, Original Autograph).

I was all for “True Love Waits” until I realised – silly me – that it isn’t an album by the dude whose voice has been described as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car” (Daniel Durchholz).

At first, grief is like an occupying army. Then it slowly begins to withdraw its troops, but it always leaves some commandos behind. And though the numbers continue to dwindle, you’re never safe: there is always the chance of an ambush.

“If I can be saved, there is no one beyond redemption.” I have said it myself. Alas, yet another instance of egotism masquerading as humility.

We act like we are the directors of our petits récits when in fact we are just the actors – actors who have forgotten our lines and aren’t very good at improvising.

My waking nightmare: the US has turned into Jurassic Park and its people are being terrorised by a Trumpasaurus Wrecks.

The relationship between Donald Trump and women can be put in terms of General relativity: Trump tells women how to curve, women tell Trump where to go.

Asked about the fulsome endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the Donald replied, “It’s great to have the support of the distinguished president of Libertine University.”

Asked to name his favourite passages from the Bible, Trump said, “It’s a toss-up between Genesis 34 and Judges 19. Both have been an inspiration.”

Desperate for a song to spearhead his campaign and market his character during the final few weeks before the election, the Donald is going for a classic from the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature: “Lay, Lady, Lay”.

Why does Trump want to be president? I used to think it was the narcissism of power. Now add the sex: he thinks he’ll get laid more. In a Trump White House the Blue Room will be known for its films rather than its receptions, while the Green Room will be repainted and renamed the Shades of Grey Room.

A big fan of the first two amendments, Trump is not so keen on the first two commandments. Or #s 3, 4, 7, 8, or 9 for that matter. And I suspect he thinks #6 is a bloody nuisance, written for losers. I will, however, give the brat #5.

I’ve not long returned from visiting my mum in New York. What a grotesque spectacle it was observing the sulphurous figure of Trump smirking and strutting while his minders appeared on news programmes assiduously trying to polish a turd.

The most salient feature of this presidential election is anger. There is, to be sure, a godly anger, imbued with sorrow and sympathy. Like the anger of the prophets. Like the anger of Jesus. But the anger in America is proud and pitiless. It is an anger unto death.

Why have white male evangelicals been flocking to a wolf? Apart from the moral paranoia, camp revivalism, American exceptionalism, and smug misogyny, it’s because Trump incarnates a realised eschatology of wrath and damnation.

Evangelical leaders who, while conceding his egregious flaws, support Trump are fond of citing Augustine, as if the bishop of Hippo had declared (in Letter 211): “Cum delectione hominum et odio vitiorum – et suffragio assholum” (“Hate the sin, love the sinner – and vote for the asshole”).

Don’t think for a minute that Trump is stupid. He’s pig ignorant, but snake smart.

The Trump campaign and the coulrophobia epidemic – a coincidence?

Trump scares me, but it’s Trumpism, embodied in the 40%, that terrifies me: the spectre of the normalising of the campaign into a movement, a demonic parody of a martyr’s blood becoming the seed of a church.

Some Christians seem to think that Jesus said the truth will set you free to lie.

Elections are certainly revelatory of the worm at the core, as the voter asks the first question Adam put to his creator: “What’s in it for me?”

In Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, as Quoyle turns the car into a sodden road heading towards his ancestral home in East Jesus, Newfoundland, his daughter Bunny kicks the back of the seat and cries, “I’m tired of going somewhere. I want to be there.” My timeworn thoughts exactly, honey. “I want to put on my bathing suit and play on the beach,” Bunny adds. Perfect.

What’s the difference between optimism and hope? Optimism is for sissies.

Monday 24 October 2016

Michael Gorman in Manchester: The Didsbury Lectures

Michael Gorman is in Manchester this week, delivering the annual Didsbury Lectures on "Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John."

You can watch a live webcast of the lectures here. The first lecture is tonight, at 7:30pm BST.

Or, if you're in the North West of England, just come on over to Didsbury and join us at Nazarene Theological College.

This lecture series has been running since 1979, and is published by Cascade Books. If you missed Frances Young's invigorating 2014 lectures on the atonement, you can also watch them at the link above, or buy the book.

Sunday 25 September 2016

30 novels Christians should read for a faith check before they turn 30

  • Voltaire, Candide (1759)
  • Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)
  • Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895)
  • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  • Franz Kafka, The Castle (1926)
  • Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
  • Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (1947)
  • Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)
  • Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  • Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
  • Peter de Vries, The Blood of the Lamb (1961)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • William Golding, The Spire (1964)
  • Sushaku Endo, Silence (1966)
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)
  • Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984)
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • José Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991)
  • Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992)
  • James K. Morrow, Towing Jehovah (1994)
  • Maria Doria Russel, The Sparrow (1996)
  • Jim Crace, Quarantine (1997)
  • Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
  • J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)
  • Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials (2000)
  • Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
  • Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (2012)

Thursday 22 September 2016

The kingdom and social ethics: a typology

Here's a rough-and-ready teaching tool from today's class. We had already done some work on the social vision of Augustine's City of God, so I used that as a basis for outlining four modern approaches to social ethics:

Monday 19 September 2016

Goldarn doodlings

What’s the difference between optimism and hope? Hope is for pessimists.

The Farmers Unions of California and Kansas are thinking of uniting, but they’re having a problem with the acronym.

After Thatcher, Reagan, and a generation of deregulated free market capitalism, what has become of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? All that’s left is the middle finger.

On a bus in Montgomery, at a lunch counter in Greensboro, and on a football field in Santa Clara, a genealogy in the civil rights movement unfolds: Sit Down and Be Counted. A butt on a seat can unsettle the complacent as much as a march in the street, and a war anthem unsung by one can be as loud and liberating as a peace song sung by thousands.

Of course Donald Trump isn’t racist. Just ask all his African American buddies: he’ll tell you. As for his plans for deporting immigrants, Trump’s decided he doesn’t need any: if he just keeps talking, who would want to stay, including Canadians, Europeans, Australians …?

Some say that they will vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. Yeah, like Hiroshima. I commend an easier moral calculus to negotiate: don’t pick the asshole. Then it becomes a no-brainer. The sociopathic self-exceptionalism, EDD (Empathy Deficit Disorder), and utter shamelessness and incorrigibility – Trump is an asshole singularity.

What’s the “alt-right”? I live in the UK, so I looked up “ALT” in Wikipedia, which says that it is an enzyme found mainly in the liver. Elevated levels of ALT suggest diseases such as hepatitis C, cirrhosis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, mononucleosis, and myopathy. Does that sound about, er, right?


Picture a beach party on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is running the barbie, Peter thinks he’s the lifeguard, the rest of the lads are playing footie, Mary Magdalene is catching the rays and reading Valley of the Dolls, and the mother of Jesus, under an umbrella, is wearing a burkini, right?

What should we conclude from the fact that we see Jesus sitting in boats and walking on water? That he can’t swim.

Can the risen Christ be in two places at once? Sure. But then so can Schrödinger’s dead cat.

The good news is that if you think you’re evil, you’re not. The bad news is that the same goes if you think you’re good – you’re not.

Let’s be honest. Conservative evangelicals don’t homeschool their kids for religious reasons. It’s because it’s the only way they’ll get a valedictorian in the family.

That you can’t love God and hate your neighbour is a truism, though that’s never stopped Christians from continually attempting its falsification.

What does it mean to say that Jesus is my “personal Lord and Saviour”? It means that he owns my ass.

Truth is not the first casualty of war. That would be imagination.

Supersessionism? Of course not. To paraphrase Paul: You can take the boy out of Israel, but you can’t take Israel out of the boy.

At a wedding when we say that we will “love and cherish till death us do part” – that’s a promise, not a feeling; and “… for worse, in sickness …” – that’s a certainty, not a possibility.

Conversation at Sunday lunch. “Grandpa, this morning you said that the church is our Mother.” “I did.” “And you also called her the bride of Christ.” “Yes.” “So then Jesus must be our Father, right?” “Um …” “Or maybe, Grandpa, if the church is the bride of Christ, and God is the Father of Jesus, then the church is the daughter-in-law of God?” “Er, could you pass the broccoli, sweetheart?”

How long do I spend with morning prayers? At least an hour. I peruse the BBC News website, then check out a few choice blogs, following links along the way, peppering my reading with such devotional responses as “Lord, have mercy!”, “Woe to us!”, Comfort them!”, and, very occasionally, “Alleluia!” or “Thank you, Lord!” Then I say “Amen!” and log off. Hey, I’m just taking Hegel – who drolly observed that newspapers had become a substitute for morning prayers – to a new level.

What is the vocation of a minister today? To teach the faith as a foreign language, to enable her congregation to become fluent in it, to ensure that they are bilingual.

A pastoral sensitivity acquired only from experience is knowing when pain can be eased and when it can only be endured, borne by the love of God.

We all put the past in the washer-dryer, but some add bleach, for others the stains never come out, while for the elderly it inevitably shrinks.

Of course I don’t want to be younger (I’m not insane), but nor do I now want to be older. To paraphrase Augustine, time’s a bitch.

Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is gratitude.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

The 7 best books I read before I turned 25

Krish Kandiah has mandated 11 books every Christian should read before they turn 25, and Andy Goodliff responded with an alternative list. I will give you my own list. How can I resist?

Instead of legislating for the rest of Christendom though, I'll just tell you the most formative books I ever read as a handsome and hopeful youngster. I assume we're only interested here in theological-type reading, so I won't mention other formative literary experiences like reading Dr Seuss and Phantom comics and sci-fi novels and the articles in Playboy magazine.

1. The Psalms. Technically I didn't read this book but I sang it a lot in the church where I grew up, even before I learned to read. It was the best thing about charismatic/Pentecostal singing back in the 70s and 80s: most of the songs were direct quotations from the Psalms (often from the KJV). I never read the Psalms for the first time: even my first reading was already a re-reading of the things I'd heard and sung in church.

2. The Book of Proverbs. I went to a religious primary school where I was subjected to a regime of edifying and disciplinary verses from this book. I often read the book of Proverbs too, and hated it. Then, later in life, I loved it. (But by then it was too late: the book is addressed to the young, i.e. to those who cannot hear it.)

3. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. We had a dramatised musical version of this called Enchanted Journey and I used to listen to it over and over on the old record player at home. My father taught me how to use the turntable and how to turn the record, which is how I got to nourish my young spirit on 1980s Bob Dylan and The Pilgrim's Progress. Later in primary school, the drama group did a production of Pilgrim's Progress. I was too young to get a part but I went to all the rehearsals and, I suppose out of sympathy, they let me be the Sound Effects Technician. What I still love about the book is the plain speech, the realistic dialogue, the journey narrative, and the lifelike novelistic characters. I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that other writers try to create people and end up with types, while Bunyan tried to create types and ended up with real people. In my opinion it is one of the most perfect books ever written in English; there's not a single thing you could change without diminishing it.

4. George Herbert, The Temple. I read and learned many of these poems during my early high school days. My mother was writing a PhD thesis on The Temple and she was always sharing some little morsel from Mr Herbert. I loved the poems because my mother loved them, and because of the plain style. Later I loved them because I discovered that they were true. The Temple is still the most precise and honest account I've ever come across about what the Christian life is really like (not what it's meant to be like: the problem with nearly all other books on this topic).

5. John Milton, Paradise Lost. Another 17th-century writer: you can see that it was a good century for me. After I finished high school I was given a Penguin paperback of Paradise Lost with a Blake illustration on the cover. I was told solemnly, "It's like an acid trip." I had been on some of those but they always left me feeling burnt out and disillusioned with the human race. Milton, who was himself burnt out and disillusioned, enlarged my vision of the human spirit and of the way history bears within itself the secret of divine providence. I liked the book so much I later wrote a PhD thesis about it. It's not my favourite book anymore, not like it used to be. The rhetoric is too high and holy. Really, Paradise Lost was written for angels, not mortals. Perhaps in the next world it will have the readers it deserves. As for me, I have gravitated back towards the plainer speech of Herbert and Bunyan, as well as other plain-style masters like Shakespeare and Hemingway and Julian of Norwich.

6. Augustine, Confessions. A few years after reading Milton for the first time, I read Augustine's Confessions. It produced a sudden change in me, more than than anything else I have ever read. Most books take years or decades to do their magic work upon the soul, but this one seemed to burn right through me and to change my view of everything. I left the Pentecostal church where I had grown up. I might easily have become Roman Catholic if anybody had suggested it to me at the time, of if it had occurred to me that Augustine was a Catholic. I thought of becoming a monk. I started reading theology, devouring thick books as if my life depended on it. I decided to go to university. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I had begun to dwell in the life of the mind (still today the only place I really feel at home).

7. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. This was one of the things I read after Augustine had made me hungry for books and learning. I had never even heard of Calvin, he came to me innocent and free of his own reputation. I chose the Institutes for one reason only: it was the biggest book on the shelf at the Christian bookstore, and I wanted as much knowledge as I could get my hands on. (It was the same thing that would later lead me to read Karl Barth, again an author whose name I had never heard.) I suppose because of all the 17th-century Protestant books I'd read, I found Calvin easy to understand. I could see where he was coming from. What impressed me most about the Institutes was its atmosphere. Calvin seemed to be forever poised in a kind of nervous tension between love and awe. With one hand he is grasped by majesty, with the other he is held by mercy. Calvin meant a lot to me: he was a help to me. He seemed to have an intuition for where the real problems lie. He had a knack for asking my questions before I had been able to put them into words myself. And although he didn't always claim to know the answers, he had a way of searching out the scriptures, opening up lines of inquiry, putting things into perspective and seeing everything in relation to the loving majesty of God.

Friday 9 September 2016

A guide dog at holy communion

On the mountain where my parents live, deep in the rainforest, there is an unassuming red-brick chapel where the people go to pray. I went there one Sunday morning, following the winding way through the forest, past the winery and the empty cafés and the smoking chimneys where the villagers still slept nestled among the trees. I parked the car across the street near the old log sign. The organ was playing. A plump of ducks crossed the road in front of me, preening themselves and gossiping amiably like the clucking women who waddled their way into the church. High in the treetops the whipbirds sung their morning antiphons. I stepped over a puddle and went inside.

“The Lord be with you.” The service was led by a white-haired skeleton, profoundly old and happy, a long-retired priest who laboured over the prayerbook, scrupulously working at each syllable and then looking up and beaming deafly at the congregation whenever we replied. “And also with you!”

When we all came forward for Holy Communion I noticed a man I had not seen before. He stepped out from the pew right at the back. He was wearing sunglasses, which would have been strange enough in church, and he had with him a dog, a labrador, who led the man into the line and brought him step by step towards the altar. When they reached the front, the dog sat down and faced the altar while the priest put bread into the man’s hand and raised the cup for him to drink. As soon as the cup withdrew, the faithful dog was on his feet again, gravely leading his master back to the pew. He was a good dog, anyone could see that. He behaved with all the ceremony and propriety that you could ask of someone who has to go to church wearing a collar. He was not himself a believer, not exactly, but he respected the thing for what it was and loved it because he knew, by an unerring instinct, that his master loved it.

After church I met the blind man outside and asked about the dog. He loved the dog and told me how they went to church together every week. For ten years the dog had led him and they never missed a Sunday.

I told him how impressed I was by the dog’s behaviour at Holy Communion. “I have a labrador,” I said, “and he would never have the discretion to wait facing the altar while I took the bread. He would sit there, sure enough, but he would turn his face towards me and his eyes would silently implore me for a crumb of consecrated bread, and then, when I refused, his hopeful eyes would brim with mourning.”

“They are good dogs,” the man agreed. “Their respect for food is very deep. That is why he understands the eucharist. He grasps it not as an idea but in its real depths. It is food. He knows that.”

“Ten years,” I said. “That is five hundred times he has gone with you to the altar.”

“Sometimes,” the blind man said, “I have felt his hunger. There is a holiness in all God’s creatures. The bread is offered in thanksgiving for all that lives.”

I said, “Perhaps in heaven there will be a eucharist for him.”

But the man said, “No, I don’t believe it. There will be no eucharist on the other side, no church or priest, no bread or wine. We have these things now because we need them. But on that day, need will be no more. There will be no sun because the Lamb will be our light. No eucharist, because everything will be thanksgiving.”

Morning found its way belatedly through the trees and we stood there transfigured in the sunlight. The ducks went by again; the dog watched them coolly, with studied indifference. The old deaf priest shuffled up and greeted us one last time and went inside to close the church.

“Besides,” the blind man said as I turned to go. “He has gone five hundred times to church already. He is a working dog. It is the same with him as with a priest: church is work. Whatever else heaven might be for him, it will not be anything that includes spending another solitary second inside a church!”

Maybe he was right, I don’t know. There is no use dwelling on it now. All this was years ago. By now the dog will have retired from active life. By now he will have died. What God thinks of him, no one can say. But I will always remember the way he sat and waited, lovingly facing the altar, while beside him the one he loved stood blessed under the name of God and ate the world’s redemption.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Back Babylon Ben! - Kim Fabricius reports on Terror at Bible Study in Texas

Emergency services were at full stretch last night after a flurry of frantic 911 calls summoned police and paramedics to the Firstest Evangelical Church in Fishfaith, Texas. On arrival they discovered a score of the elect on the church steps, the men at the top and the womenfolk at the bottom, all weeping, wailing, and gnashing their teeth or dentures.

Inside the church, in the King James Room, there was a similar scene of trauma. Many had fainted, others were in shock. The paramedics managed to revive the former with a chorus of “Give Me That Old Time Religion”, while they were immensely relieved when they detected no signs of brain activity in the latter. “Normal readings,” said the chief paramedic. “A Dr Pepper and they’ll be just fine.”

The police arrested two men with Boston accents wearing PTS hoodies, and confiscated two books, one in Greek, one in German (apparently the Sound Literature Alarm System had failed), and immediately informed Immigration and Customs. Police Commissioner Billy Bob Winchester said the FBI will be investigating links with terrorist organisations. “After all,” he observed, “PTS is only a few letters different from ISIS.”

The church’s pastor, the Reverend Jedediah Jedediah, later said: “Our prayers are with those who have suffered from thoughts at tonight’s Bible Study on ‘Eternal Torment: the Soft Option’. When you consider that those two devils from New Jersey had the temerity to question damnation, cite the unsaved (Carol Bart? Tallbutt? Kongdon?), and befuddle the good folk of Fishfaith with words like ‘scatological’ and ‘apookatastasis’, well, firearms will now be mandatory at all Firstest services, scripture classes, and Sunday School.”

The inquisition continues.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

The parables in rock songs

  • The Lamp under the Bushel (5:14-15): “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (Pink Floyd)
  • The Wise and Foolish Builders (7:24-27): “Shelter from the Storm” (Bob Dylan)
  • New Patch on Old Cloth / New Wine in Old Wineskins (9:16-17): “Old Habits Die Hard” (Bon Jovi)
  • The Strong Man (12:29): “Fun with Ropes” (The Go-Go’s)
  • The Tares (13:24-30): “Farmer’s Blues” (Merle Haggard and Marty Stuart)
  • The Mustard Seed (13:31-32): “Really Very Small” (Esperanza Spalding)
  • The Leaven (13:33): “Rise Up” (Indigo Girls)
  • The Hidden Treasure (13:44): “Give It All Up” (The Corrs)
  • The Pearl (13:45-46): “You Can Get It If You Really Want” (Jimmy Cliff)
  • The Net (13:47-50): “Talking Fishing Blues” (Woody Guthrie)
  • The Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35): “Cold, Cold Heart” (Norah Jones)
  • The Labourers in the Vineyard (20:1-16): “Best for Last” (Adele)
  • The Two Sons (21:28-32): “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (The Clash)
  • The Wicked Husbandmen (21:33-41): “The Payback” (James Brown)
  • The Great Banquet (22:1-14): “It’s My Party” (Lesley Gore)
  • The Fig Tree (24:32-35): “Juicy” (The Notorious B.I.G.)
  • The Faithful/Unfaithful Servant (24:45-51): “Wake Up Call” (Maroon 5)
  • The Ten Virgins (25:1-13): “Stupid Girls” (Pink) 
  • The Talents (25:14-30): “Work Me, Lord” (Janis Joplin)
  • The Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46): “You Don’t Know Me” (Ray Charles)
  • The Sower (4:1-9): “Fields of Gold” (Sting)
  • Interpretation of the Sower (4:13-20): “Why Must I Always Explain?” (Van Morrison)
  • The Seed Growing Secretly (4:26-29): “I Keep It Hid” (Alice Clark)
  • The Two Debtors (7:41-43): “Bills, Bills, Bills” (Destiny’s Child)
  • The Good Samaritan (10:25-37): “Walk on By” (Dionne Warwick)
  • The Friend at Midnight (11:5-8): “He Woke Me Up Again” (Sufjan Stevens)
  • The Rich Fool (12:16-21): “Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More” (The Wonder Stuff) 
  • The Barren Fig Tree (13:6-9): “Chop ‘em Down” (Matisyahu)
  • The Lost Sheep (15:1-7): “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Traffic)
  • The Lost Coin (15:8-10): “The Search Is Over” (Survivor)
  • The Prodigal Son (15:11-32): “Daddy Lessons” (Beyonce)
  • The Unjust Steward (16:1-13): “Wise Up” (Aimee Mann) 
  • The Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31): “Help!” (The Beatles)
  • The Master and Servant (17:7-10): “No Thanks to You” (Emma Watson)
  • The Unjust Judge (18:1-8): “Naggin’ Woman” (The Kinks)
  • The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14): “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (The Temptations)

Tuesday 23 August 2016

The disappearing thesis: on favoured literary forms

Those who knew G. K. Chesterton always knew how to find him. Wherever he went, he left a trail of essays behind him—often just little ruminations scribbled on scraps of wallpaper and old receipts that tipped out of his pockets as he rambled through the streets. And yet he was fully awake to the novelty of such a life. Montaigne was a mere few centuries dead, and the literary experiments bloomed and faded like flowers when compared to gothic walls of mediaeval literature that surrounded him. He was committed to the essay, but only as he was deeply concerned by it.

Such a profound shift in writing would necessarily produce a shift in thinking, a shift which he locates in his essay "On Essays". The essay is a wild thing, untamed and beautiful. Chesterton writes, “By its very nature it does not exactly explain what it is trying to do, and thus escapes a decisive judgement about whether it has really done it… It is always dealing with theoretical matters without the responsibility of being theoretical, or of propounding a theory.” Modern thought developed into wanton theorising without the commitment of extensive structured reasoning. “The mediaeval man thought in terms of the Thesis, where the modern man thinks in terms of the Essay.” Those who think only in essays think only in digressions.

Luther, he continues, was no revolutionary modernist, but a ponderous mediaevalist, nailing theses to be defended: “he was doing exactly what all the other mediaeval doctors had done since the twilight of the Dark Ages.” Luther made assertions with the intention to argue them for the remainder of his life. If Luther had been a mere essayist, we would all be Tetzelites.

And yet the essayist is no villain, but merely suffers a contagious form of intellectual ADHD. “The trouble is that the essayists have become the only ethical philosophers. The wandering thinkers have become the wandering preachers… After a certain amount of wandering the mind wants either to get there or get home.” Home for us cannot be the mediaeval cloisters; Chesterton desires only the survival of the thesis. A little intellectual meandering is good for the soul and cleanses the mind, but we need a thesis in order to depart from it here and there. Without a thesis, how will we ever know if we are truly on an excursion? 

“It would be unfair, perhaps, to say that the modern man only essays to think—or, in other words, makes a desperate attempt to think. But it would be true to say that the modern man often only essays, or attempts, to come to a conclusion.”

Whatever would he have made of Twitter? #GKC #newblogpost

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Polly wolly doodlings

The cast of characters at the RNC was right out of Looney Tunes. I half expected Elmer Twump to delight the crowd by whispering, “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting Hiwwary.”

Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. “Who do you say I am?” he asked them. Trump, called The Donald, answered, “You’re a loser!” “Exactly!” replied Jesus. “So much for your Messiah crap, Peter.” Then he ordered them, “Go, tell everyone what The Donald just said” (Mark 8:27ff., Original Autograph).

Samuel Johnson was close but wrong: patriotism is the penultimate refuge of the scoundrel; his last refuge is “authenticity” (e.g., Donald Trump) and “sincerity” (e.g., Tony Blair).

On being accused of plagiarising Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 DNC, Melania Trump declared, “I don’t imitate, I steal.”

“I know I don't have his looks. I know I don't have his money. I know I don't have his connections, his knowledge of fine wines. I know sometimes when I eat I get this clicking sound in my jaw… First he screws me, then he screws you… Excellent.” —From Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump (Wayne’s World)

Just out is a new, pre-election edition of Daniel Kahneman’s masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is entitled Thinking, Fast, Slow, and Orangutan, with a foreword by Bill Maher.

What do you call someone who orders a rib eye, gets an overcooked hamburger, and is so pissed off that he stomps into the kitchen and eats the slops? A Bernie supporter who votes for Trump.

 “The business of America is business”? No, Cal, the business of America is America.

Under felt threat, toads puff, bears rear, and cats bristle and yowl. So too politicians who, alas – so much for evolution – then declare states of emergency.

Do I think it’s okay for ministers, male or female, to wear other than black clerical shirts? Sure, as long as they’re charcoal, onyx, or ebony. Rainbow-coloured shirts are just plain naff, the sartorial equivalent of saying “Hi guys” at the start of worship.

It is ridiculous to suggest that Jesus was a Christian. More ridiculous still to suggest that God is a Christian. They are, of course, both Jews.

One thing the gospels don’t tell us about Jesus (though Isaiah 53 may suggest it) is that he walked with a limp. How else could the disciples have kept up with him?

Preachers, have you ever stumbled and fallen on the way to the pulpit? If not, why not?

If you’re a minister who prefers preaching to visiting, that’s probably because you prefer listening to yourself for half an hour than to somebody else. Or perhaps because the preparation is less onerous.

The bad news about being angry with God is that you don’t trust him. The good news about being angry with God is that you don’t trust him.

Let Kent’s words to Cordelia (King Lear, IV, vii) be the epigraph of your every engagement with Facebook and Twitter: “To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid.”

Let’s get incarnational. The colonising of the mind by conventional images of the “beautiful” face and the “perfect” body is not only a cultural pathology, it is also just plain wrongheaded. For experience teaches that when it comes to physical attraction, looks comes a poor second to scent, not least in longevity of appeal. A thousand gazes aren’t worth a single sniff.

Blessed is the person who uses the subjunctive more than the indicative, for life will be full of surprises and the kingdom will always be near.

Yes, Karl, the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other. But you forgot to mention that after the sermon, depending on the newspaper, the preacher might have to wash and disinfect the latter appendage.

It’s becoming more and more fashionable for people to micromanage their own funerals. I recently attended a funeral where instead of honouring God through Myvanwy we honoured Myvanwy through God. Actually, though, it’s a quite venerable practice, going back to Pharaoh.

The decline of faith has left the West without a grammar of grief. Flowers (lots and lots of flowers), rainbow raiment, pop songs, Twitter tributes, and Kahil Gibran are among our more sententious solecisms of “celebration”.

It’s a fallacy to think that just because you’ve got a good pair of garden shears you’ll be able to cut hard branches: they might be non-secateurs.

New programme on the God Channel featuring the saved giving their testimonies: it’s called Corn Again!

Ecclesiastical Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: the pathologies, respectively, of liberal and traditionalist churches. The one has no memory and the other no mobility.

I suspect that the living don’t miss the dead half as much as the dead miss the living.

Friday 12 August 2016

Milton vs. Shakespeare: Is the Christian faith tragic or comic?

I had the pleasure of giving a short dinner speech at Campion College this week. I compared Milton's tragic vision to Shakespeare's comic vision, and argued that these are two alternative ways of understanding history theologically. The audio is available here.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Field of dreams: a sermon on baseball and redeeming the past

I’m a psychoanalyst’s dream: I rarely have sweet ones. Usually something of a nightmare. Two in particular I’ve been having for over 50 years. In one I’m being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex: very Jurassic Park. The other concerns a baseball game, the 1965 Suffolk County Final, my own Huntington High School versus West Babylon High School. The score is tied and the game is now well into extra innings. It’s a swelteringly hot day, and the umpires almost decide to call it a draw lest we youngsters drop from dehydration, but they decide to let the game continue one more inning. With a runner on third base but two outs (three outs to an inning), I come up to bat against an all-star pitcher with an evil fast ball. I take (don’t swing at) the first two pitches, curve balls, because they’re out of the strike zone. Now he’s got to come in with the third, and it’s got to be his best pitch, and I’m ready for it. Sure enough, it’s a fastball, belt-high and right over the plate. I swing the bat. Crack! The ball soars into center field. Never have I hit a ball so well or so far. The crowd rises to its feet. The runner on third base trots home and watches. I round first base and also watch, for surely the centerfielder will never reach the ball in time, and we will score the run we need to win the game. But he’s off like a jackrabbit and at the last moment he leaps, stretches, and tumbles to the ground, rising triumphantly with the ball lodged firmly in the webbing of his glove. I am in despair. I wake in a sweat. But not only because I came within an inch of winning the game, but because I know what happened next – can never forget what happened next – in West Babylon’s last turn at bat: I made the error which let in the run which lost us the title. From nearly hero to bleating goat in a matter of minutes.

I know, I know, it’s only a game. But it’s also a metaphor for a fundamental fact of life: there are no what Americans call do-overs; what’s done is done and cannot be undone. You can’t rewind the tape, edit it, and then fast-forward to the present. As the poet (T. S. Eliot) says:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
But the world isn’t speculative, it’s concrete and unforgiving, and failure is a weight you just have to bear like Sisyphus with his irremovable load (but probably without his imperturbable smile). Or is it? And do you?

Let me tell you another baseball story, Field of Dreams (starring Kevin Costner), perhaps the most magical film of the merciless 1980s. Ray Kinsella is a novice Iowa farmer with a wife and small daughter, struggling to make ends meet. One evening, alone in his cornfield, a voice whispers from the heavens: “If you build it, he will come.” Build what? Who will come? In the days ahead Ray continues to hear the voice, and finally he sees a glorious vision of a baseball diamond set in the field. Now Ray knows what he must do. To the astonishment and derision of his neighbours, he destroys valuable cropland to build a baseball field, the “field of dreams”. The “he” – at least the initial “he” – who “will come” turns out to be “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, from the infamous Chicago “Black” Sox, who was accused of taking a bribe in the 1919 World Series and was subsequently banned from the game. Now, on the “field of dreams” that Ray built, this disgraced man gets another chance to play ball.

But Ray soon learns that it’s not just for Shoeless Joe that he has been called to be an agent of grace. For the voice speaks to him again and sends him on a journey east to “ease his pain”, the pain, it transpires, of Terence Mann, a once famous but now neglected and embittered writer, who as a child dreamed of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ray finds Mann in Boston, takes him to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, during which he hears yet another voice telling him to “go the distance”, the “distance” of meeting another might-have-been, an old GP, Archibald Graham, who played just one game in the Big Leagues. Doc Graham doesn’t return to the farm with Ray and Mann, but on the way they do pick up a young hitchhiker named, in this enchanted world, Archie Graham, who is still dreaming.

But that’s still not the end of Ray’s journey of faith, for one other figure finally appears on the “field of dreams”: Ray’s own father, though now dead, as a young man. John had wanted Ray to live out his own dream of becoming a baseball star, but their relationship had soured after Ray vilified Shoeless Joe, one of his father’s heroes. Ray now sees his dad sympathetically as a complex composite human being, both sinning and sinned against, and sees himself as that man, everyman, too. In a moving final scene, father and son are reconciled, as we now realise that John is the ultimate “he” who “will come” for Ray to “ease his pain”. Cue an iconic American cameo: father and son playing a game of catch on the “field of dreams”.

Well, for Brits who think that baseball is glorified rounders when cricket is baseball on Valium, perhaps you’re thinking what’s the big deal? What’s the matter with Kim this morning? What’s with the nostalgia? Is he homesick? Yes, I’m homesick. But not really for the Huntington Blue Devils, or for the Major Leaguer I never was, or even for my late and lovely dad who played catch with me. No, but for the home, the poet (T. S. Eliot again) observes, we all start from, leave, and long to return to. Banished from the Garden, exiled from the Promised Land – these are the archetypal biblical images: we are all exiles and strangers, wayfarers and pilgrims, lost and searching, homeless and homesick, longing for homecoming, paradise regained. We all, deep down, have a sense that somewhere, sometime, something went wrong – we went wrong – and if only we could go back, get another chance, we’d get it right, or right the wrong, and all manner of things would be well.

Perhaps, as in Ray’s case, it was a relationship that broke down, with a parent, lover, or friend. Or perhaps, as in the case of Terence Mann, it was a painful rejection that made us withdraw from the world, nursing our wounds. Or perhaps, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, it was some mistake we made for which we’ve never been forgiven – or perhaps for which we’ve never forgiven ourselves. Oh to be able to go back and restore the relationship, to follow the road not taken, to receive mercy, to make amends! Is it true that alienation, defeat, failure, disgrace, finally confirmed by death, have the final word? Are second chances only the stuff of cinematic fairy tales? Is the past irredeemable?

It is interesting that in Field of Dreams there is no mention of God or Christ. Indeed at the time of its release, a Scottish church leader read the film simply as a “monument to obsession”. Well, I guess his neighbours called Abraham obsessive when he heard the call of God to “Go!”, and he went. And I guess their friends called Peter and Andrew obsessive when they heard the call of Jesus to “Follow!”, and they went. Perhaps you yourself have been thought obsessive if you’ve had a flash of insight or recognition and felt the quickening of your spirit compelling you to do something that to all the world looks daft or insane, but you just knew you had to do it because it gave you the chance to recover something precious you’d lost, or to find the one thing needful for your life to make sense. For this particular obsessive and dreamer – obsessed with the Nazarene, dreaming of the kingdom – the film stands as an unforgettable parable, a celluloid sacrament, that taps into the deep hole in our hearts, which we need to discover and acknowledge, which the gospel tells us need not remain empty but, by faith, can be filled with redeeming grace, so that our restless hearts can find their rest in God.

We usually think that we live our lives forwards, towards the future, but the Christian life is also lived backwards, towards the past. Whatever mess we may have made of it, however distressing our memory of it, by grace both mess and memory can be transformed, such that we can review the whole of our lives without bitterness or despair. St Augustine, in his ruthlessly self-critical autobiography the Confessions, is our teacher. “In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time … but has now become the meaning of everything that happened”; discovers that because “God dwells in memory, the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence” (Ben Myers). We can look back and see a trajectory, a tipping point, a revelation. Everything falls into place, works for good.

No, neither guilt nor shame, neither failure nor defeat, not even death itself have the final word in our lives. Because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, my past and my present – what my past is doing now – have a future. Crane your faith: can you see it? The day dawning on the “field of dreams” we call the new creation, when (so to speak!) the ball drops safely, the runner scores, and – thanks be to God! – victory is ours through him who loves us.

Friday 5 August 2016

Sonderegger on Style

A good book gathers annotations—marginal notes, exclamations marks, and question marks, often paired together. When the margins are full, these engagements overflow into the pages of journals and reviews. Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is a good book. Marginalia has just published a wonderful review essay by Brad East, which captures well the confounding and compelling spirit of Sonderegger’s work.

Brad ends his review with a comment on style: “Her distinction is not that she does systematic theology… but how she does it. Her style is a throwback: unashamedly spiritual, punch-drunk with praise and prayer, compelled by living encounter with divine reality.” Which describes wonderfully the experience of reading her work.

Style, after all, has been of interest to Sonderegger for years. In the early 90s, she published a piece, “On Style in Karl Barth”, which made me never want to write on Barth again. In the opening paragraphs, she provides a chilling description of the lifelessness of Barth scholarship when compared with its source. “The lengthy treatments of Barth’s ‘method’, so popular among Anglo-Americans, seem to march on, correctly but rather mercilessly, revealing so little of the joyful delight and freedom of movement Barth shows at every turn” (p. 65). 

Those who wish to avoid method might attempt to write on Barth’s doctrine, but will hardly fare any better, since Barth forces a choice upon the interpreter: “are they ‘within the system’, or are they without, looking in? … Allegiance often results in a wooden repetition of Barth’s own phrases, only in a very loud voice” (p. 66). If one wishes to reckon with Barth at all, one must face this problem at some point, either creating a false system to critique from a distance, or entering into his world and bumbling like a fool. “It is”, Sonderegger laments, “a particularly friendless hour when this problem finally arrives at your door. Nothing, really, is so wooden to read as one’s own prose about Barth” (p. 66).

And so it is no wonder that when she comes to turn her hand to a systematic theology, Sonderegger mostly puts Barth to the side and speaks with her own voice. Perhaps being a true disciple of Barth means simply doing the work of theology, as Sonderegger says, "without a loss of nerve."

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Living backwards: the conversion of memory

I’m reading Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter with some students this semester. The narrator, Hannah, is an old woman looking back on her life in Port William. Right at the start she says: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed…. This is my story, my giving of thanks.”

Normally we think about the Christian life as something that’s lived forwards in time: we want our orientation to the future, our plans and decisions and actions, to be converted to the gospel. But Hannah Coulter has reminded me that the Christian life is also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted. By any objective measure, Hannah’s life has not been easy. But she is able to look back on the whole thing in gratitude, without bitterness or blame. Her conversion to the gospel is most evident not in anything she does but in the way she remembers herself and tells her story.

It is the same with the first and greatest autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine’s conversion totally re-shaped not only his future but also his past. In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time, as the drama of life was actually occurring, but has now become the hidden meaning of everything that happened. “You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know you, and it is there that I find you when I remember and delight in you…. You have honoured my memory by making it your dwelling-place” (Confessions 10.24.35–25.36). If God dwells in memory, then the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence.

The Bible, too, is not just a promise for the future or a revelation of how to live. First and foremost the Bible is an aide-mémoire. It directs itself towards the sanctification of memory – the memory of God’s way with Israel, read backwards through the prism of the death and resurrection of the Saviour. “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6.6-9). We can have a future only if we know who we are, and we know who we are because of memory. I am told that some sufferers of head injury lose their ability to plan because they have lost their memory: the future exists only for those who have a past. 

The last novel I read with this student book group was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time…. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.”

God dwells in memory.

This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself, I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, “the fields and vast mansions of memory” (Confessions 10.8.12).

Monday 25 July 2016

God, save us from a silent spring

(Tune: Gonfalon Royal)

God, save us from a silent spring*,
when sparrows are too sick to sing:
no hymns of praise announcing dawn
but muted cries as nature mourns.

When pesticides have done their worst,
when seed and soil, once blessed, are cursed,
when deserts creep where forests grew,
how can we plead we never knew?

When coral reefs all disappear,
as waters warm and acid sears,
and whales no longer sound and breach,
will seas forgive our overreach?

And what of beasts we hunt and kill
for pelts and tusks or passing thrill;
the animals that Adam named,
will they absolve us of our shame?

God, help us to apologise
for desecrating earth and skies;
for sins of pride and thanklessness,
have mercy, Lord, as we confess.

Then raise us up with Christ, we pray,
and send the dove to show the way
to know the peace of wildest things**
and celebrate a songful spring.

* Silent Spring (1962), by Rachel Carson, documents the disastrous effects of pesticides on American agriculture, and is often cited as the book that launched the modern environmental movement.

** “The Peace of Wild Things” is a poem by Wendell Berry. It depicts the poet, unable to sleep for his “despair for the world”, going to a nearby pond or lake where “I come into the peace of wild things…. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

Thursday 21 July 2016

2 reviews: Cortez and Volf/McAnnally-Linz

The new book by Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, offers
interesting snapshots of the interaction of christology and anthropology in the history of Christian thought.  Cortez constructs his argument on the assumption that Christ reveals both natures of the hypostatic union: Christ discloses humanity to us.

Cortez orders the book around thematic expositions of the christologies of select figures from Christian history. He assembles a solid cast of theologians from history to probe the question of Christ’s humanity and ours. The inclusions and topics are select but pertinent: Gregory of Nyssa and gender, Julian of Norwich and suffering, Luther and justification as the foundation of humanity, Schleiermacher and ecclesially mediated humanity, Barth and embodiment, Zizioulas and personhood, and Cone and liberation. Each chapter offers a coherent and focussed reading designed to illuminate the impact of christology on the considered topic of theological anthropology. The figures are utilised more as models of thinking through the issues of humanity rather than as offering settled conclusions.

For instance, his discussion of gender through a reading of Gregory of Nyssa works its way right into the heart of contemporary questions about biological sexuality and constructed gender. But rather than argue that Gregory’s theology furthers (or hinders) arguments for gender fluidity, Cortez hones in on the way that Gregory’s discussion of gender pivots on the resurrection. It is to the author’s credit that he pulls back from proclamatory judgements. Cortez’s mostly noncommittal stance invites the reader to reflection.

However, the curation of topics and authors does not escape a sense of arbitrary judgement. Why does the book avoid Augustine, Irenaeus, Kathryn Tanner, and the many others who meet the book’s guiding criterion of developing a christology that sheds light on humanity? The selection criteria are obscure. 

Further to this, the rendering of the human developed here is fragmentary and incomplete, which seems to be an accident of design, rather than a deliberate constructive proposal. Expected topics were omitted without explanation—sin, the human and the environment, culture, etc. The conclusion attempts to tie the readings together, but this serves primarily comparative purposes, rather than offering a unique vision of the human through the lens of Christology.

The main contribution of the book lies in its offering of these models of thinking, rather than in any proposal of a christological anthropology. This is a fine end in itself, and the book would be at home on any undergraduate reading list in theological anthropology.


This decade seems to be marked by a gradual escalation of Christian concern for public issues. A new book co-authored by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz,  Public Faith in Action: How to think carefully, engage wisely, and vote with integrity, addresses these concerns directly. Born from a series of Facebook posts, the book contains short digestible chapters arranged by topic. Volf and McAnnally-Linz aim to equip Christians to reflect on public issues. The authors attempt to avoid needlessly adopting stances that would only limit discussion, and instead aim to provoke questions that might lead to healthy dialogue and debate. Each chapter closes with an excellent list of introductory and advanced readings (Quite a number of ABC Religion and Ethics pieces appear in these lists).

The authors have aimed their book at the church, hiding much of the theological reasoning behind the text. Most of the time this method proceeds without difficulty. For instance, the authors outline four possible approaches to the question of same-sex marriage, and comment that each stance has compelling theological reasons, without delving into the theologic itself. On other occasions, however, they advocate a settled “Christian stance” on a particular issue. Can opposition to the death penalty, for instance, be argued to be the only (note the italics) option available to Christians? I fear that only a very limited definition of “Christian” would enable such a claim. Similarly, the authors present opposition to euthanasia as the Christian stance, and then back this up with social rather than theological argumentation. The authors would have been better served at these points to put forward such positions as compelling rather than exclusive.

Despite this limitation, Volf and McAnnally-Linz have produced a very fine book that will ignite some healthy discussion in the churches about our common life. Kathryn Tanner once wrote that fruitful theological discussion emerges as we are drawn to the controversial edges of belief and thought. This book is all about such edges, and invites every Christian to reflection and disputation.


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