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.


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