Wednesday 29 August 2018

Faith & Theology is closed

 Fourteen years and 2600 posts later, this blog is now closed. It's been a lot of fun. But I don't quite have the heart to keep the blog going after the death of Kim Fabricius. I won't delete the site, but there will be no further posts. Feel free to browse the archives – and thanks to all our loyal readers over the years.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Kim’s last doodlings

by Kim Fabricius, 1948-2018

Kim’s family sent me through his final batch of doodlings, posted posthumously here. (Kim, your last doodling is incorrect. But I wont hold it against you.)

Two keys to self-knowledge: acknowledging that you are ashamed of yourself, and being able to make fun of yourself.

The superficial explanation for why some people don’t like tragedy is that it’s depressing; the deeper reason is that in tragedy there is no one to blame.

Most people couldn’t care less about why bad things happen to good people, they are only concerned with why bad things happen to me. Like Job, they think they’re the centre of the universe: theodicy reduced to cosmic egotism.

Title for a book on the doctrine of election in Calvin and Barth: Will and Grace.

The term “speaking in tongues” always makes me smile: it’s the irrepressible suggestion of oral sex.

The root of all misogyny (Girardianly speaking) is boys showing off.

“Don’t tell lies.” But the most insidious mendacity is mute.

Bible verse on a plaque in the birthing unit of a maternity ward: “Jesus said, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you an epidural.”

In Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, the sage and shrewd Dr Oreshchenkov observes that “it’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” So too for the clergy. A self-righteous minister is bad, a righteous minister worse.

Evangelical Americans: so understandably concerned about whether an unborn child has feelings, so indefensibly indifferent that a grown-up child – their president – doesn’t.

Combining funny-peculiar and funny-ha-ha, the Church of England seems to think that the Divine Comedy is a Punch and Judy pantomime.

Augustine is said to have remarked, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Well, better a whore than a harridan.

On Luke 10:25-37: In order to be a good Samaritan, one must first become a half-dead Jew: lest you succumb to pride, he is your focal identification. 

“The widow? Easy pussy – go for it. The orphan? Little shits of color – normalize motherlessness (Herod, btw, was a classy guy, smart, tough). And the stranger? Keep the vermin out; otherwise, concentration camps.” —Trump’s exegesis of  Exodus 22:22-24 and Deuteronomy 10:18.

“Make America Great Again.” Again? Better make America British again. 

Having an American accent abroad during Trump’s Reign of Terror is like having a tattoo you had done when you were young and stupid but is now impossible to remove. The best you can do is to cover it up, e.g., by insisting, “No, I’m a Canadian.”

When The Complete Tweets of Donald Trump is published, in what section of American bookstores should it squat? Juvenile Fiction? Fantasy? Women’s Studies? Performing Arts? For cultural accuracy, I’d go for “Christianity.”

Death kills, but not for the hell of it. No, for death omnicide is an anti-ontological vocation: Deleo, ergo sum.

Since Cain slew Abel, you could call every homicide a copycat crime.

Christus solus, ergo Islamophilia.

My default facial expression in coffee houses has become the Smirk. Observing the washed having a flat white as a side with their iPhones – uninvited it floods my features. It’s only a matter of time (you’ll be pleased to know) before someone punches me in the face.

One of the pathologies of senescence is verbosity. You can still take off and cruise, but you can’t land the damn plane. You even forget that you are in the air – until you run out of fuel and crash.

“What do people think of me?” The question is both begged and vain: very few people bother to think about me at all. Why would they?

Sunday 1 July 2018

RIP Kim Fabricius, 1948-2018

My friend Kim Fabricius has died. On the weekend I received an email from his family. He was at his local coffee shop when he died, suddenly and unexpectedly. I didn’t realise a person like that could die. I had assumed that a light as bright as Kim’s would never go out.

He used to sit at that coffee shop scribbling his prolific “doodlings” – jokes and aphorisms and insults – on the paper napkins, before sending them to me.

We became friends 12 years ago when Kim started writing with me on the Faith & Theology blog. I loved the guy. He was so funny, so sharp, so widely read, so cultured in an utterly irreverent and self-deprecating way, so over-the-top, so New York. He got his Christianity straight from Karl Barth and Dostoevsky and the Book of Job, which might explain why he didn’t have much patience for cultural Christianity or the platitudes of a feel-good therapeutic faith.

He had become a Christian while reading Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans: at the start of the book he was an unbeliever, and by the end of it he had decided to become a minister of the gospel. (Later, when he had a son, he named him Karl.)

Kim spent a long ministry in a little Reformed congregation in Swansea in the south of Wales. He was a pastor to those people, as you’ll know if you have read any of the innumerable sermons, hymns, and liturgies that he made available online. Not to mention his seemingly endless supply of down-to-earth wisdom about the ministry: “When I prepare couples for marriage and come to the vow ‘till death us do part’, I always tell them to cheer up – it could be longer.” Or this: “It may be easier to negotiate with a terrorist than with a church organist, but it is easier to negotiate with a church organist than with a cat.” Or this: “A minister is something of a jack-of-all-trades – without the skills.”

In some ways Kim was a pastor to me too. We wrote to each other hundreds (or was it thousands?) of times. When I suffered personal griefs and defeats, I would turn to him for counsel. He was a pastoral realist, he liked to face things squarely just as they are, and there was great understanding and great kindness in the way he could talk to you about the challenges of living with ordinary human brokenness. He was one of those people who makes you wonder if there might be a point to having Christian ministers around after all.

Kim was a person with few illusions and much love. “What’s the difference between optimism and hope?” he once asked, and answered: “Hope is for pessimists.”

He wrote once that “God invented the church to give atheists a fighting chance” – yet he devoted his life to serving the church. He railed against America – yet he was proud to be a New Yorker, and he was always contemplating the theological advantages of American sports. In a very characteristic remark, he wrote: “Karl Barth said that when he gets to heaven he will seek out Mozart before Calvin. Quite right – and presumably he spoke to Calvin only to compare errors. Me – I’ll be heading for the choir of angels, to find Sandy Koufax, to see how he made the baseball sing.” (But the pitcher has outlived the pastor. I hope Sandy Koufax will seek out Kim one day and bestow the longed-for benediction.)

Kim and I had formed a strong friendship over the internet before we ever met in person. We met one day in the United States – it was during one of his annual trips to New York to visit his mother – and I was stunned to realise that he was thirty years older than me. His heart and mind were so young, I had assumed that perhaps I was the elder brother. He was old enough to be my father, yet Kim Fabricius was one of the youngest people I have ever known. In his mind there was nothing stagnant or stale. He was still curious, still supple, still exploring the possibilities, still seeing life as an adventure of faith, hope, and love. At the age of 69 he died; and he was only getting started.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Dicey doodlings

 You think you know someone, but of course you don’t know them too. What might you not know about Jesus of Nazareth?

It is not the gift- and skill-sets – the intelligence and imagination, the range of reading, the elegance and wit – that separate the great theologian from the good one. The difference lies not in the brilliance but the defects. It takes a magnificent flaw to make a great theologian.

Ask me who I am and I will tell you my story. The genre, of course, is fiction.

Am I my own best interpreter? What a dumb and diabolical notion. Only God can truly interpret me, which he will do definitively on Judgement Day – deploying, I am confident, post-kritical theory.

What was the takeaway message for the great and the good after listening to that sermon at the royal wedding? The gospel according to John and Paul: “All you need is love (all together now) / All you need is love (everybody) / All you need is love, love / Love is all you need”. An uncomfortable reminder that what a preacher says and what a congregation hears may be two very different things.

A newspaper headline I quite like: “Kim’s a Seoul Man”.

BBC Breaking News (May 22nd): “Brief [Michael Cohen?] to moon Trump on handling Kim”. Oops, sorry: that should be “Moon to Brief Trump on handling Kim”.

Trump’s annotation of Titus 3:2 in his bedside Bible: “Against everything our country stands for. Most over-rated apostle in history. A total loser. Very sad.”

Might Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize? Why not? Though ISIS will present some stiff competition. North Korea, Iran, Israel/Palestine: better the Orwell Peace Prize.

Information is power. Alas, so too is misinformation.

God and I have an admirable arrangement: I need someone to love me and God wants someone to love. We’re the perfect odd couple.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” “Absolutely,” agreed the first four disciples: “you cannot worship both Cod and Mammon.”

Following the trajectory, expect praise music to trend as liturgical karaoke.

Revenge is a dish best served with either apomorphine or xylazine.

What’s the difference between parental abuse and neglect? The difference, respectively, between knowing and not knowing whether your children are spending most of their free time on-line.

AI may be the future but another AI is already an everyday reality. I mean Artificial Imbecility: you see it in people whose iPhone is a prosthesis.

Everything passes; nothing lasts. But there are some moments – you know those moments, all but forgotten but suddenly adventitiously triggered – that are with you all your life. Unless you stop and take a picture of them with your goddamn iPhone.

Why do I write – doodlings, propositions, sermons, hymns, whatever? Answer: authorial itch. Of course scratching only makes the pruritus worse, and can lead to all kinds of existential and spiritual lesions.

Waiters – even if the service is terrible, always be kind to them. Not because of WWJD, but because you don’t want your entrée heavily seasoned with gob.

That life can unravel so quickly, uncontrollably, and irreparably – that is the tragic. And faith? Faith does not alleviate, on the contrary, it intensifies tragic affliction. Over the abyss, faith hangs by the thread of hope alone.

The Christian is indeed simul iustus et peccator. He is also simul laetus et miser.

I may or may not be a “real Christian”, but a Christian who tells me I’m not is definitely not.

Who, in Adam, is more likely to understand me better than anyone else? My mother or father, sister or brother, spouse, partner, friend – or perhaps my enemy? No, someone who does not know me: a great novelist.

The best that I can say about me is that I am a placeholder for what I will become.

What is the basis of both Christian ethics and vocation? “What can I do for you?” (Bob Dylan).

Monday 9 April 2018

Delphic doodlings

Breaking News: “Hell abolishes pope” (source: John Piper).

Their Lord was a loser, his ministry a failure, his death a shambles, so just what did Christians expect when pastors became celebrities?

Peter’s advice to Christians who would boast about their faith: “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”

If it could be demonstrated that God does not exist, I would, of course, become an atheist. And if it could be demonstrated that God does exist, I would, of course, become an atheist.

“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” But hey, why not do both?

There is nothing so uninteresting as certainty. Hence our puzzling preoccupation with the most certain thing of all, and therefore the ultimate in boring: death.

The problem with many sermons is that they continue after they conclude.

Good “spiritual directors” aren’t. They are spiritual indirectors.

(After Augustine) If you understand prayer, it’s not prayer you understand. Also: you will never pray if you try, you will only pray if you pray, but you will never know whether or not you have prayed.

So studies show that prayer is good for you. It makes you healthier, happier, more stable. Well, if it’s so beneficial, the hell with it!

Thank God for sorrow. Without sorrow, we would all be such insufferable pricks.

The NRA has more congregants than Episcopalians and not many less than Lutherans and Methodists. Well, Jesus did say, “On LaPierre I will build my church.”

According to a recent poll, the historical event of which the British are proudest is the creation of the NHS (1948), with standing alone against the Nazis (1940) coming a distant second (68%-49%). Imagine that, my fellow Americans. No, I didn’t think you could.

A good teacher is not someone who can give a good answer but someone who can detect a bad question.

Ironic at least, tragic at worst, our neighbour is more likely to be our enemy than the stranger we so fear.

It’s not rocket psychology: we are afraid of strangers because we are afraid of ourselves, my inner others who are split, repressed, denied, or, less pathologically, simply fugitive, obscure, opaque. Xenophobia is misdirected egophobia.

If you want to catch the essence of humanity, observe the faces of the sleeping. We look like imbeciles, don’t we? Or, better still, passport photos. Serial killers, right?

While physicists frantically search for a Theory of Everything, Christians blithely explore a Theory of Everyone: it’s called Christology.

Jeez, the way some Christians are responding to life in a post-Christian culture you’d think that Chicken Licken was a prophet and whinging and sulking fruits of the Spirit.

I’m thinking of taking the Benedict Option. Benedict Arnold, that is. Under the current administration treason seems a conscientious calling.

Why can’t I get my head around Trump, why can’t I feel him? Wittgenstein is helpful. He said, “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.” Well, the same goes for a hyena. Similarly, Thomas Nagel asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” So of a different life-form we might ask, “What is it like to be The Donald?”

Trumpvangelicals – aka Christian Nihilists.

In the Age of Twitter, Warhol’s “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” has become “everyone will be fatuous in 140 characters.”

Back in the day, I moved in a circle of junkies. I still do, but the addiction du jour is now Facebook, a drug equally toxic, harder to kick, and easier to justify.

To update E. M. Forster’s sigh: “poor little key-pad tapping Christianity”.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Dinky doodlings

I’ve never had an original thought in my life – including the thought that I’ve never had an original thought in my life.

Do you ever feel that something is missing from your life? If you do, you are.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Well, Gramsci was half right.

“From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Stardust, actually.

Lent launches an assault against disordered desire through fasting and prayer: in fasting you pray with your body, in praying you fast with your mind.

Apart from the Bible, theological reflection is propaganda, and apart from theological reflection, the Bible is propaganda.

In criminal law there is GBH, the equivalent of which in theological polemics is DBH (i.e., David Bentley Hart).

What are Charlie Craig and David Mullins doing in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case? Speaking truth to flour.

As the recent service featuring Andy Savage at Highpoint Church confirms, there is nothing like praise music du jour as an aperitif for the junk food that follows.

I hear that the Vatican is now marketing Donald Trump tee shirts for his fan base. Emblazoned on the front is a picture of the president, encircled by a Latin translation of “Make America Great Again”: Populus Americae Vult Decipi, Ergo Decipiatur.

Imagine Trump with his circle of family and friends worked into a novel by Jane Austen. It would make all his critics’ diatribes look like encomia.

American exceptionalism: some nations may be shitholes, but they are bog-standard shitholes; only the United States is (to re-coin Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) “the indispensable shithole”.

In an interview at Religion Dispatches, Professor Russell Jeung opines that “the white evangelical church is dead.” “Dead”? Worse than dead: undead.

What has caused the demise of the white evangelical church in the US? The classic hubristic military miscalculation of opening a second front: to their perennial asinine atonement wars, they started a series of mephitic culture wars.

Prayer is not just an inherently political activity, it is an act of resistance and protest. To pray “Thy Kingdom come” on a hassock is truly to take-the-knee.

Who are America’s greatest comic writers? “Self-Reliance” alone puts Ralph Emerson right up there.

There is a word for someone who has been argued into faith: sucker. Because (a) he doubtlessly has failed to detect some rather poor apologetic reasoning, and (b) because even if he hasn’t, whatever he has been argued into, it isn’t faith.

“If we have to use a single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ – their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete: neither complicated, diluted, nor unified, by abstraction.” That’s Oliver Sacks (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) describing the world of the “retardate”. Of clinical interest, it is also a perfect fit for Jesus the Идио́т (Idiot) (Dostoevsky).

If you read without a dictionary to hand you insult the author; if you write without a thesaurus at hand you insult yourself. Not to mention you’re a lazy bastard.

Not talking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being silent; in addition you need the act of humility called listening.

The worst thing about retirement is not that you are no longer necessary, it is the realisation that you never were. And the best thing about retirement? The same as the worst.

I look at my grandchildren, 5 and 2, and of course I want them to be happy, but not too happy and not only happy. I pray also for a seasoning of anger and a soupçon of anguish.

Pity the devil: the loveless bastard is scared to death.

Life makes one promise, and keeps it: Death. God also makes one promise, and keeps it: Jesus.

Pitiable is the person who approaches death saying, “I have had enough”, but blessed is the person who approaches death saying, “I want nothing more.”

Sunday 11 February 2018

Teaching idea: heaven, hell, purgatory

Here’s an idea for a class I’ll be teaching next semester on Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. What do you think of this hell-purgatory-paradise schema? I wouldn’t aim to impose this rigidly on the texts. But it could be a way of encouraging students to look for broad patterns of continuity in the way these very different authors represent the spiritual order of the universe.

1.     Hell
2.     Purgatory
3.     Paradise (I)
4.     Paradise (II)

5.     Macbeth – hell
6.     King Lear (I) – purgatory
7.     King Lear (II) – purgatory
8.     The Tempest – paradise

9.     Samson Agonistes – purgatory
10.  Paradise Lost (I) – hell
11.  Paradise Lost (II) – paradise
12.  Paradise Lost (III) – purgatory

Some other random observations about the three authors:
  • The use of light and darkness to depict spiritual realities – very important in Shakespeare too (cf. the use of darkness throughout Macbeth).  
  • The relation between visible and invisible realities. This is made doubly interesting in Milton, who draws attention to his own blindness even as he explores the boundary between the visible and the invisible.
  • The feminine principle in depictions of paradise. In Dante and Shakespeare, the love of a woman (Dante’s Beatrice; Cordelia’s love for her father in Lear; the marriage of Miranda to Ferdinand in The Tempest) is the point at which the whole cosmic order is revealed and redeemed. Only in Milton is the redemptive principle purely masculine: woman is not a revelation of cosmic order but more like an obstacle that has to be overcome. (That is an overstatement about Milton, but I think the contrast to Dante and Shakespeare is a real one.)
  • For students looking for an extra challenge, an interesting essay topic would be to compare Blake's illustrations of these three authors. Maybe I'll do a bit of this in class as well. Dante and Milton are especially well suited to Blake's style of illustrating, which is to depict the spiritual sense of the text. Paradoxically, he often finds the spiritual sense by representing words with a scrupulous literalism – a technique that produces some amazing effects in his illustrations of Shakespeare. His painting Pity (pictured above) evokes spiritual reality through a literalistic depiction of a dense cluster of metaphors in Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air." 
  • Actually I think I need a whole additional class on Blake's illustrations.


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