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Date: Wednesday, 17 Sep 2014 16:04
We've been discussing the relation between community and institution in my ecclesiology class. In this week's class I tried to summarise the issues by explaining the way institutions can be more or less aligned with the teaching of Christ – here's a 15-minute audio snippet from the lecture:
Following this account of "institutional conversion", I suggested three different types of Christian discipleship in relation to institutions:

1. Conversion through participation: attempting to align an institution more closely with the teaching of the gospel. Generally this is possible where the founding purpose of an institution was derived from the gospel. Examples: hospitals, schools, law, welfare agencies (as explained in the audio snippet above) – in fact, most major Western social institutions.

2. Contradiction through participation: working within an institution in a way that reveals the contradiction between the gospel and the values of that institution. Generally this is necessary where the founding purpose of an institution directly contradicts the teaching of the gospel. Examples: a Christian working in a casino cannot seek to align that institution to the gospel, but can embody the teaching of Christ through a life that abstains completely from gambling and the glorification of luck. Such a life bears witness to the moral world of the gospel in contradiction to the moral world of the institution. I know of pacifist Christians who serve as military chaplains in the same spirit: they seek to serve their military institution faithfully in a way that nevertheless bears witness to the contradictory values of the gospel.

3. Contradiction through coercion: using social power to coerce an institution into altering its aims or practices; here the gospel is revealed as judgment on an institution and its goals. Examples: the use of parliamentary processes in the abolition of slavery in England; or current organisations like Not for Sale and Stop the Traffik, which use combined strategies of law, lobbying, education, and corporate support to effect social change. In such cases, Christians make use of some social institutions (law, media, etc) in an attempt to constrain, or even to dismantle completely, an institution that is believed to be the cause of unequivocal social harm.

OK, I know this schematic outline is far from perfect, and I know that actual institutions are more complicated, both in their goals and in their structures, than this outline suggests. But without some differentiated account of institutions and their relationship to the Christian community, I don't see how we can even begin to reflect responsibly on Christian vocation in our world. I've come to believe that sweeping theological dismissals of institutions are a menace to Christian discipleship.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "society"
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Date: Saturday, 13 Sep 2014 23:25
1. Injustice is bad. Anarchy is worse.

2. Revolution may be divided into two main types. Fast Revolution refers to the overthrow of political authority by a popular movement. Slow Revolution refers to the deep transformation of social institutions from within. The first type of revolution can occur overnight while the second occurs over several generations.

3. It is not advisable for any social theory to stipulate the precise conditions under which Fast Revolution would be justified. When dealing with exceptions to the rule, it is best not to try to regulate them within the bounds of a theory. However, a Christian theory of society ought to have a presumptive preference for Slow Revolution over Fast Revolution, and for stability over disorder, even while allowing that Fast Revolution might be legitimate in certain exceptional circumstances.

4. Fast Revolution may further be divided into two types: a popular revolt against political authority, and the overthrow of a bad ruler by subordinate lawful authorities. The first is an act of rebellion, the second an act of political responsibility. Calvin allowed for the second type – the defeat of tyranny through, and for the sake of, law. But he believed the first type is impermissible since lawlessness is an even greater evil than injustice. Christians, he noted, are able to live faithfully within many different kinds of social orders, including very unjust ones.

5. For the most part, Christianity has been a "revolutionary" force in society only in the sense of a Slow Revolution. The Christian message has the capacity to transform a society through the gradual reform of human relationships and institutions over many successive generations.

6. Historically, Slow Revolution has proved much more lastingly transformative than popular movements of Fast Revolution. In the great modern revolutionary movements, an initial period of terror and bloodshed is generally followed by a return to pre-revolutionary structures with minor modifications. As Crane Brinton has said of the French Revolution, "The blood of the martyrs seems hardly necessary to establish decimal coinage" (Brinton, Anatomy of Revolution).

7. Distinct from all these types of revolution is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is not rebellion against political authority but an act of political responsibility in which some particular law is broken for the sake of another (more basic or more important) law, or for the sake of some widely shared value in a society. Christians have a long and illustrious history of civil disobedience. Martyrdom involved the dual act of submission to lawful authority (i.e. submitting to a penal sentence) and disobedience to the same authority (i.e. refusing to participate in the imperial cult). Even such an extreme form of civil disobedience was carried out on behalf of, and not against, the existing social order.

8. Where Christians have refused to participate in certain institutions, they have done so not in a spirit of rebellion but as a form of deeper social solidarity. Early hellenistic critics claimed that Christians posed a threat to the social order because of their refusal to serve in the army. Origen replied: "We help the emperor in his extremities by our prayers and intercessions more effectively than do the soldiers…. In this way we overcome the real disturbers of the peace, the demons. Thus we fight for the emperor more than the others, though we do not fight with him, nor at his command" (Origen, Contra Celsum).

9. Thus throughout its history the church has proved to be an "unreliable ally" in every social order (Karl Barth). As civilisations rise and grow old and eventually sink into ruin and decay, the Christian community renews itself continually through its gospel of a transcendent order of righteousness and peace. 

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "politics, society"
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Date: Wednesday, 10 Sep 2014 14:32

A hymn by Kim

(Tune: Drakes Broughton)

Migrant Jesus, at the border,
     refugee of fear and hate,
you’re a threat to law and order,
     nightmare of the nation-state.

Child of Israel, fleeing soldiers,
     from the Jordan to the Nile,
were your parents passport-holders,
     were you welcomed with a smile?

Home from Egypt, Spirit-breathing,
     in the towns of Galilee,
how you had the people seething
     when you preached the Jubilee.

At the margins, far from centre,
     where you met the ostracised,
even friends weren’t keen to enter
     conversations that you prized.

Ease our fears, forgive our hatred
     of the other and the odd;
help us see the single-sacred:   
     face of stranger – face of God.

Migrant Jesus, at the border –
     Dover Beach or Rio Grande –
Greetings, sister! Welcome, brother!
      Make this place your promised land.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "hymns, Kim Fabricius"
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Date: Sunday, 07 Sep 2014 11:37
OK, polemics aside for a moment, the outline below is an attempt to state my point of view as clearly and concisely as I can, organised around some key doctrinal themes:

Creation: The human person is created in the image and likeness of God after the pattern of Christ, the human prototype. By nature the human being stretches beyond itself in love towards God and the neighbour. Human nature was created not yet in perfection but with the capacity to attain the eschatological perfection of a society ordered wholly by love.

Fall: Only the height of our createdness can measure of the depth of our fall. Created with a capacity to love God, the fallen human being projects transcendent longing on to worldly objects. When this is done individually it leads to spiritual enslavement. When it is done collectively – when a whole social order projects transcendent longing on to some common object – then the monsters of idolatry appear on the stage of world history, and uncontrollable enslaving powers are unleashed.

Sin: The essential form of sin, therefore, is idolatry; and the fruit of idolatry is slavery. The first is a perversion of our capacity to love God; the second is a perversion of our capacity to love the neighbour.

Society: In every social order, one can glimpse something of the majestic createdness and abysmal fallenness of human nature. The problem of any given social order lies not in specific structural and institutional arrangements. The problem lies in the inscrutable depths of the disordered human heart. That is why the noblest revolutionary turns overnight into the bloodiest tyrant. It is why the most equitable social and economic arrangements are so quickly exploited by a mysterious and insatiable greed. It is why social orders prove mysteriously insusceptible to rational planning and management.

Politics: The sole rationale for politics is original sin. The principal aim of political order is not to produce justice but to restrain injustice; not to cultivate the spirit of the law but to enforce the rule of law; not to create love but to set limits to self-interest; not to bring peace but to constrain the inevitable tendencies of the human heart towards violence and war. Politics cannot bring Christ to earth. It is enough if it succeeds in holding Antichrist at bay. But while the rationale for politics is original sin, the measure of politics is eschatology. The perfect eschatological society stands as a criterion and criticism of every social order, stripping it of its pretensions to transcendence and thereby freeing it to be simply what it is: a tragic necessity for a fallen world. 

Institutions: The ordering of society through institutions reflects a real though limited good. Judged by the measure of the perfect eschatological society, institutions can be relieved of their pretensions to transcendence and can aspire to better (though always limited) approximations of truth, goodness, beauty, love, and peace – though these subtle approximations are ordinarily possible only where a society has first been adequately restrained by political authority and the rule of law.

Church: The church is not one social institution alongside others, even though the church inevitably expresses its spiritual life through institutional structures. The church is the society of Christ's followers dispersed throughout the world, permeating every institution and every stratum of social order. Christ's followers participate fully in the social and institutional life of a society, but they do so in the mode of repentance and hope. They repent as representatives of the whole social order; and their hope is likewise a representative act on behalf of the whole society. In this way the church functions not as one of the world's institutions but as a leavening of all institutions within a given social order. By pursuing the imitation of Christ through the twofold discipline of love of God and love of neighbour, Christ's followers give persistent witness not to any alternative or improved political order but to something before and beyond all political order: human sociality ordered by love. The existence of such a witness leads in some circumstances to martyrdom, in other circumstances to reforms or modest improvements within a social order. The consequences differ but the witness is the same.

Eschatology: Christian hope is directed not towards a catastrophic end of social life, but towards the revelation of a perfect sociality ordered by love. The infinite beauty of God allows for unceasing growth in love. In the life of the world to come, our growth in love will continue unceasingly, and human society will flourish under the order of love. On that day – but not till then! – the necessity of social ordering through politics, law, and institutions will be lifted.

God: The secret of human history is the patience of God. All God's dealings with humankind are marked by a patient love of growth and life and time. Not coercively but with supreme courtesy, God draws the human partner out beyond itself into loving union with God. This is an eschatological relationship, since the depths of divine love are without limit; but it is eschatology adapted to the capacities of human nature. Our nature is not violently altered from the outside but is, in Christ, creatively healed, renewed, and glorified from within. Strictly speaking, it is our love that is reordered, not our nature. The glorified human being – the human being lovingly united to God and to the neighbour – gives rise to a glorified (because fully human) sociality. A fully human society is the glory of God.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "creation, eschatology, politics, sin"
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Date: Friday, 05 Sep 2014 03:12
Kim intended this comment for the thread on the previous post, Does theology reflect self-interest? But he kindly agreed to run it as a separate post instead:

What St. Egregious said, both about “low-hanging fruit” (or, better, cracking red bopple nuts with a sledgehammer) – and one might add bulverism – and also about Kate Dugan’s measured yet incisive intervention.

Personally, mate, your first two posts on apocalyptic, creation, and social vision came as a bit of a shock, but so high is your stock in my theological portfolio that they forced me, urgently, to re-examine my own mind on the matter. However, I quickly concluded that your take on thinking and living apocalyptically is unrecognisable to me. (That is, if I read you rightly – I’m still not sure that I do; or, as it were, if you not only mean what you say – of course you do – but also say what you mean.) 

In my take, the auto-apocalypsis (cf. your beloved Origen!) Jesus of Nazareth – his life and teaching, his cross and resurrection – neither withdraws us from political and social practices nor tempts us to build them into the New Jerusalem. Rather the Crucified and Risen One reveals them as social ecologies of brokenness in which he is working his white magic of redemption against the black arts of Sin, the Devil, and Death, while calling and empowering us to bear public, parabolic witness to the New World hidden here in pockets but on its way in fullness.

The deal, then, is that, as Christians, we should both radically critique institutions (family, government, industry, university, etc. – and especially the church!) with the principalities-and-powers discernment and protest of a Stringfellow, and also, eschewing smug gnostic detachment and engaging the charism of agency, patiently, imaginatively, and hopefully work to remodel them with the broken-middle commitment of a Gillian Rose. There are no secular-free zones and the kosmos, not just the ecclesia, is where Christians practice the freedom of obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. I’d rather fail, fail again, and maybe fail better (Beckett) over Jesus’ “apocalyptic categories” than be a successful practitioner of Brother Reinhold’s “Christian realism”.

Go on, then – disagree with your elderly theological alter ego who has spent a lifetime in ministry, with plenty of exasperation but no resentment, and who, along the way, has also raised two kids!

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Kim Fabricius"
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Date: Tuesday, 02 Sep 2014 15:24
My recent posts described how my understanding of the relation between God and the world has changed in the past several years. One of the recurring criticisms of these posts was that my changing views were motivated by self-interest. This view was expressed by several party members of the AUFS People's Republic, as well as by some of my politically sensitive Facebook friends. A comment on my previous post states this view with admirable clarity:
Why don't you just be entirely honest with us? The real reason why you've changed your stance is because you've realized that you have a huge vested interest in keeping the status quo. I mean, you can say it's your kids and the stockholm syndrome you've developed toiling away for the system, but really at the end of the day, it's your desire to maintain your current comfortable lifestyle. Ahh, how nice it must be!
This habit of associating intellectual convictions with personal self-interest seems to be quite widespread among leftist undergraduates and other well-meaning citizens who get their Marxist theory at two or three removes.

Marx's class theory, however, was about the way broad social changes occur in history. It was not a psychological theory about the motivations of individual persons. In fact, it is axiomatic to Marx's theory that individuals are not consciously serving the interests of their class. Marx was familiar with attempts to explain historical events by uncovering the private interests of individual persons; he regarded such tactics as beneath contempt. In a letter to Engels, Marx poured scorn on a certain German historian who had reduced "the spirit of history" to "facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes" (Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, 159). Marx was emphatic about distancing his theory from "the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest" (Marx, Surveys from Exile, 176-77).

The Marxist class theory explains the way alterations occur in vast social patterns. It does not explain why the bourgeois shopkeeper sells one kind of cheese instead of another. It does not explain why intellectuals subscribe to competing views on any given topic. It does not explain why an Australian theologian might change his mind about something. Marxist class theory is a theory of historical change, not a theory of private motivations.

One of the most brilliant and influential modern revisions of Marxian theory was Foucault's theory of discourse. Like Marx, Foucault wanted to measure large historical patterns of power and interest. His work on power and discourse, so formative for contemporary critical theory, was an attempt to lay bare the vast machinery of language and institutions, not to explain why specific individuals think and act the way they do. His theory of discourse claimed to be an explanation of the whole field within which human subjectivity operates. It was not a reductionist psychological theory, as if all one's daily choices were secretly motivated by power and self-interest.

Again, it is fundamental to critical theory that the real operations of history are hidden from historical agents. (To digress for a moment, this is one aspect of what I am referring to when I compare critical theory to gnosticism: critical theory is always concerned with the acquisition of a secret knowledge that is hidden from the masses.) A theory of discourse does not imply that individual agents (or in Foucault's case, individual speakers) are motivated by power interests. To assert this would be to miss the whole significance of "discourse" as a domain that encompasses a huge diversity of competing interests and motivations. Discourse is "a space of multiple dissensions; a set of different oppositions whose levels and roles must be described" by the critical historian (Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 173).

At any rate, Foucault's concept of power has nothing to do with sentimental moral admonitions about self-interest. Power, in Foucault's vocabulary, is a morally neutral term that describes the way a particular social order is created. "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it 'excludes', it 'represses', it 'censors', it 'abstracts', it 'masks', it 'conceals'. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth" (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 194).

Anyone who has understood this theory will perceive the absurdity of the claim that the views of a particular Australian theologian can be explained by unmasking his sinister power-interests. My interlocutors used their critical theory to explain why I had really changed my mind: they might just as well have used quantum theory or homeopathy to explain it.

I have no intention of advancing an alternative account of why people change their minds. Presumably each person's intellectual convictions depend on a unique configuration of culture, education, language, environment, temperament, and experience. A theory rich enough to explain all this would have to be as large as life itself. I will only venture to say that one should take it for granted, until proven otherwise, that other people's convictions are not the product of bad motives or a wicked heart.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "doing theology, Marx, Michel Foucault"
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Date: Sunday, 31 Aug 2014 23:25
For the nth time in my life, I have begun to write a children's novel. All my previous attempts have ended in failure, mostly due to certain technical problems that I have been unable to solve. One of these is the problem of representing time.

The peculiar genius of cinema is its capacity to portray the passing of time directly. One can see this with special vividness in films where the action unfolds in real time – films like Rope (1948), Bicycle Thieves (1948), High Noon (1952), and 12 Angry Men (1957). The ability of film to record time is one reason why some of the greatest directors – Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Scorsese, among others – saw the long-take shot as having an essential importance, as if cinema achieves its full effect when it shows time unfolding in a single shot.

Even a scene depicting boredom can be captivating onscreen. One of the most beautiful scenes in Journey to Italy (1954) shows a married couple driving in a car across Italy, utterly bored with each other's company. The camera shows the passing of houses, fields, and street signs. It shows the sullen boredom on the faces of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. But it is not boring to watch. We are watching the passing of time, and that is marvellous to behold.

In his classic study on the art of cinema, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky argued that time is in fact the medium of film. The whole artistry of film, he believed, lies in the way it shows things passing through time. The director carves a film from a "lump of time". "Time [is] the very foundation of cinema: as sound is in music, colour in painting, character in drama."

With the novel, things are very different. Fiction cannot portray time directly. Events in a novel cannot unfold in real time. The novel cannot show what the passing of time looks like. Of course, the ability of fiction to portray human consciousness depends on time as a condition. But the novel is sculpted out of consciousness, not out of time. Time is hidden behind the action of the plot.

This distinction between film and fiction might sound philosophical. But it has helped me to find a solution to a technical problem that I have faced whenever I have tried to write fiction. In my attempts to write novels, I kept trying to achieve cinematic effects. If the character is going on a journey, I would describe the journey. If the character is waiting for something, I would describe the waiting. If things were developing, I would try to describe the process. The results are deadening. Process and movement are the stuff of film, but not the stuff of fiction. (Obviously there are exceptions. A novel like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a work of genius precisely in the way it seems to record the passing of time. A novel like this is the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, for present purposes I'm not concerned with works of genius. I'm just trying to figure out some basic techniques for creating an ordinary run-of-the-mill novel.)

It was only recently that this difference between film and fiction became clear to me, in part because I've been watching a lot of early movies from the 1920s and 30s. So I decided to try another children's novel. I've planned this novel simply as a series of scenes plotted along a timeline. I am deliberately trying to pack everything into these scenes and to leave out everything between the scenes. I have renounced (or am trying to renounce) the attempt to describe process, development, and the passage of time. 

The approach I'm trying here is also modelled partly on the theatre, where the gaps between scenes are largely responsible for the creation of suspense. Shakespeare never shows anybody going on a journey: they have either arrived or they are about to set out; or, often enough, you hear about the journey indirectly during another scene. All the action is crammed into a sequence of more or less static scenes, while the passage of time (including all sorts of major developments in character and plot) occurs between the scenes.

I don't know if I'll achieve better results this time. My earlier attempts at novels have all sunk beneath the weight of their own insufferable boredom and indigence. This one is called The Island of Lost Cats. It is modelled on a detective story. It involves a boy, his cousin named Jack, and an island on which all the cats have mysteriously disappeared. 

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "films, literature, theatre, writing"
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Date: Tuesday, 26 Aug 2014 08:49
Dear reader! My recent reflections on creation and apocalyptic were so roundly repudiated, ridiculed, and rebuked that I thought a few points of response and clarification might be in order.

1. Childhood

Nothing attracted more jeering, especially in the echo chambers of Facebook, than my observation that raising children had influenced my view of the world. It was especially seminary-educated individuals who professed to be shocked by such a revelation. I was denounced for implying that childless people cannot have sound views. I was said to be promoting noxious "hetero-normative" values and to be propounding "a doctrine of the family". I was condemned, reasonably enough, for advocating "the maintenance of white supremacy". One criticism ended with the ironic comment, "But hey, I have no children" – as if to demonstrate that, in the despicable world of Ben Myers, nobody except a parent could ever be qualified to express an opinion about anything.

It is always interesting to see how much of ourselves can be projected on to what we read. (Just go back and read the offending passage in light of those readers' criticisms, and you'll see what I mean.)

When I wrote the post, I didn't advance any doctrine of the family. I didn't recommend parenthood as a universal path to truth. I didn't even claim that child rearing is necessarily a good or wholesome experience. I simply explained that, for me, it was an experience that altered my perspective on the world.

What I tried to offer was an honest autobiographical account of how my own view of society began to change several years ago. I mentioned three personal experiences that contributed to this change: the experience of raising children, the experience of working in institutions, and the experience of teaching. Given that we're discussing the relation between the Christian faith and society, I don't see why it is ridiculous to admit that experiencing some new aspects of society (these three things were all new to me at the time) might alter one's perspective. Are we meant to get all our theories out of books, and never test them against any of our own experience of what the world is like?

In the kind of critical theory currently in vogue, it is, in fact, customary to tell one's own story as part of an explanation of how one sees things. Such autobiographical material is usually treated with the greatest deference. But apparently the experience of child rearing is beneath contempt and cannot be accepted as a legitimate occasion for changing one's perspective.

Why should that be the case? When I used the hetero-normative code word – children – it triggered an automatic response of hostility and contempt, even though my use of the word was personal and autobiographical. Is this, perhaps, because seminary-educated people have imbibed a critical theory that trains them always to spot the difference between the goodies and the baddies?

2. Institutions

To my remarks on approximate justice, a number of people – not only the kindly Craig Keen but also the inimitable Adam Kotsko – responded that the New Testament points to a very different set of assumptions about God and the world. Craig summed up this objection in his lapidary style:
Ben, if you are saying that on this day you believe that the doctrine of creation, worked out particularly among the children of Abraham in praise of the God who liberated them from Babylonian bondage and then liberated Jesus from imperial slaughter, is a way of articulating the potency lying in wait in extant orders, this is a sad day, it seems to me.
One of Adam's wisecracks made the same point: "I knew I’d found authentic Christianity when I had kids and bought into the institutions – just like Jesus and Paul did."

I understand the appeal of this line of criticism. There is, in the theology of our day, a widespread nostalgia for the first-century Christian experience of marginalisation, dispossession, and persecution. But I think it's quite misleading to compare the plight of the earliest Christians to the situation of the church in western societies. A clear statement of the problem is in H. Richard Niebuhr's 1946 essay on "The Responsibility of the Church for Society". The church's responsibility for society, Niebuhr writes, has many historical roots:
But one highly important root of the sense of obligation is the Christians' recognition that they have done not a little to make the secular societies what they are. In this respect the modern church is in a wholly different position from that which the New Testament church or even the church of Augustine's time occupied. The Christian community of our time, whether or not formally united, is one of the great organizations and movements in civilization; it is one of the oldest human societies; it has been the teacher of most of the nations now in existence. It cannot compare itself with the small, weak company of the early centuries living in the midst of secular societies that had grown up independently of it…. [Modern empires and nation states] were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.
H. Richard Niebuhr was not trying to open an American branch of Radical Orthodoxy. Writing in 1946, he was under no illusions about the legacy of western Christian social order. It is precisely because Christian influence on society has been so deeply problematic that the church cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing from social institutions.

That's broadly how I see our situation today. Triumphalist complacency, prophetic or ironic posturing, the cultivation of an ostensibly pure ecclesial zone – such stances all amount to the same thing, a tragic failure of responsibility for the world as it actually exists in our time.

Personally I think any theology today has to be able to say something about the way Christians engage with the world through institutions. A revolutionary theology that despises institutions as a matter of principle might sound exciting, but it runs the risk of marginalising Christian discipleship from the exact places where it is most sorely needed.

3. Justice

I was surprised that so many readers were disconcerted by my remarks about justice and transcendence. I have already quoted Craig's words above which understood me to be describing the "potency lying in wait in extant orders". Elsewhere, someone spoke of my "glee for existing order"; and many comments expressed shock and disgust that I would so calmly dismiss the quest for absolute justice in this world.

But an appeal to transcendent justice doesn't mean that one gives up on the world. Nor does it mean that things will automatically improve by some magic inner potency. Nor, again, does it mean that everything ought to stay the same. Rather a doctrine of transcendent justice attempts to hold two things in tension. Divine justice supplies a vision for social change; it refers to an absolute criterion against which existing social arrangements can be measured, criticised, and improved. But the transcendence of this justice destroys the presumptions of any given social order, as well as the presumptions of the revolutionary; it passes judgment on all conservative and progressive claims to ultimacy. Because there is a transcendent justice, social improvement is possible; but because it is a transcendent justice, even the best social change is partial and incomplete.

The productive tension between these two poles of justice and transcendence is, as I see it, the main contribution of the Christian faith to a social vision. It is a strange reflection on our times that any of this should require explanation. Don't they teach Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr in Protestant seminaries anymore? Original sin and eschatology? What do they teach?

So as to make it clear that such a tension does not entail family-values quietism or a mindless capitulation to existing order, let me quote the so-called Oscar Romero Prayer, a document that I hope will be considered above reproach on such matters:
It helps, now and then, to step back
And take a long view.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction

Of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
That the kingdom always lies beyond us.


[…]

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one
 day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted
,
Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects

Far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,

A step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's
 grace to enter and do the rest.


We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

4. Apocalyptic

I did not set out in the previous post to explain or categorise the different uses of apocalyptic in theology. I was describing my own changing views, so my concern was with the use of apocalyptic themes in some of my own writing over the years. I noted that my own version of theological resentment was heavily indebted to Marxist critical theory, and I explained why I no longer find this satisfactory. But it was not my intention to impugn every Christian scholar who makes use of apocalyptic categories. In particular, there is a whole school of New Testament scholarship devoted to excavating the apocalyptic dimensions of St Paul's thought. One can learn a great deal from the penetrating exegetical studies of writers like Käsemann, Martyn, and Gaventa; such research seeks to provide a sober picture of the world of the New Testament and of the endlessly wondrous mind of St Paul. 

The problem, for me, lies in how one applies such findings to contemporary theological questions. In my own publications in this area, I assumed that one can quite easily replicate St Paul's apocalyptic categories in a contemporary account of the church's relation to western societies. For the reasons stated under #2 above, I no longer believe this to be the case. I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.

In addition, it seems to me that Pauline theology suffers from distortion – and soon begins to take on a gnostic, anti-worldly colouring – when it is synthesised with Marxist critical theory. I don't think it's controversial to point out that a good deal of what is currently called apocalyptic theology involves such a synthesis, either implicitly or as a matter of principle.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "children, creation, politics"
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Date: Saturday, 23 Aug 2014 18:26
The thing about Shakespeare's plays is that they are about human beings. That is where all their interest lies. The plays are interesting to the extent that human beings are interesting. That is why people keep turning out to see the plays four centuries later: to see human beings walking around onstage – talking, loving, killing, dying, and the rest of it.

Anybody who wants to stage Shakespeare has to keep this in mind above everything else. The great and holy vocation of the theatre is to put human beings on the stage and to make them believable. When directors of Shakespeare lose confidence in the ability of human beings to arouse interest, they turn instead to stage gimmicks or self-referential theatricality or the Beauty of Shakespearean Language or some other shoddy substitute. The consequences are dire.

The new Sydney Theatre Company production of Macbeth has everything going for it – innovative staging, funky music, special effects, celebrity casting, soaring soliloquies – everything, in fact, except human interest.

It is as if the director wanted to include all the tricks of the trade without ever really making up his mind about what kind of play he wanted to make. There are bits of grinding minimalism followed by bits of glitzy theatricality, scenes of great dullness followed by scenes of furious overacting. Macbeth is a very claustrophobic play. But instead of seeing a claustrophobic atmosphere evoked through character and action, the hapless audience is forced to sit in cramped plastic chairs behind the stage. Once dutifully seated like this, we are for some time immersed in clouds of smoke so that the stage is barely discernible. The little old lady next to me was choking in distress into her handkerchief. In one scene the curtain closes and the audience find themselves – you guessed it – behind the curtain. It is all perfectly claustrophobic, to be sure, but it is not the claustrophobia of Macbeth. It is an attempt to engineer through technical means what Shakespeare evokes through character and dialogue. 

An example. After Macbeth has murdered Duncan, he meets Lady Macbeth in the dark:
MACBETH: Who's there? What, ho?
LADY MACBETH: [...] My husband!
MACBETH: I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?
LADY MACBETH: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did you not speak?
MACBETH: When?
LADY MACBETH: Now.
MACBETH: As I descended?
LADY MACBETH: Ay.
MACBETH: Hark!
The dialogue evokes a sense of crushing, claustrophobic darkness. The two characters seem to meet without meeting, each calling out blindly from within the solipsistic terror of a nightmare. No smoke machine is needed to create the right effect. Even if the play is staged outdoors on a summer's day, the audience becomes wrapped in a suffocating spiritual darkness as the action unfolds.

All that is necessary for this to happen is for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to seem like real people. There has to be a certain chemistry between them. They have to sound like man and wife when they confide in each other. Their murderous conspiracy has to seem, at one level, like an ordinary domestic drama. We have to believe that, in their own disastrous way, they really love each other. Lady Macbeth would sooner dash her baby's brains out than to see her husband's manhood diminished. This is Bad Love, to be sure. But for all its perversion, this powerful relentless feeding of ego upon ego is recognisably human and conjugal and domestic.

In the Sydney Theatre Company production, however, Lady Macbeth is marginalised; some of her most important scenes are left out; the relationship between husband and wife is not developed; each actor plays an individual part, but there is no connection between the characters.

Instead, theatrical gimmicks are relied upon to create the desired effects. Not only smoke machines but also strobe lights; showers of glittering confetti raining down on Macbeth in the last act; the use of the empty theatre as a stage (remember, the audience is seated onstage, looking out on an empty theatre – or, to be more precise, gazing longingly upon hundreds of comfortable empty cushioned seats).

Only a production that lacks all human interest would need so many frenetic attempts to keep the audience interested. Our actors, I am sorry to say, even resort to rubbing food in each other's faces. By the end of it, every last man, woman, and child has had some sort of foodstuff smeared on them, and most of them have also had drinks poured over their heads for good measure. But all the cream pies and confetti in the world are no substitute for character and action. Even Hugo Weaving's flawless delivery of Macbeth's great speeches is no substitute for a Macbeth who interacts with other human beings – his wife, his friends, his subjects, his enemies. Don't get me wrong: Hugo Weaving is a genius of the stage; but he deserved a better production than this.

It is surely noteworthy that the only really interesting moment all evening is the scene in which Macbeth and his wife set the dinner table together. For a few precious moments the whole stage comes to life and we feel that we are looking out at real human beings, since setting a dinner table is exactly the kind of thing that human beings do. In the end, no amount of emotional speechifying, no amount of strobe lighting or confetti, can substitute for the simple dramatic quality of observing human beings behaving humanly with one another onstage.

And, most importantly, no matter how much one might appreciate the spirit of dramatic experimentation, my two hours of hard labour in an avant-garde plastic chair have convinced me that there is ultimately no substitute for the consolations of an ordinary cushioned theatre seat. It is Shakespeare's characters who are supposed to suffer and die, not his audience.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Shakespeare, theatre"
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Date: Thursday, 21 Aug 2014 18:31
From time to time I get emails from people who are interested in "apocalyptic" ideas. Over the years I gave various talks and published various papers in this area, and of course I used to blog about it too. The other day a reader emailed me about a blog post from six years ago in which I promoted an apocalyptic approach to the doctrine of creation. I've written a letter in reply, which I'll post here in case others are interested:

Dear N.,

It was about 8 years ago that I got really interested in apocalyptic ideas. I wrote a few papers along these lines. I even went so far as to draft part of a book on creation and apocalypse. The gist of the thing, if memory serves, was to argue that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship. God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape. I don't want to deny that there was some truth in all this. But partial truths can be a dangerous thing. It's like reading the prophets without taking on board the wisdom literature as well.

It's hard to say exactly why I first got interested in apocalyptic ideas. In part, I suppose, it was ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

It seems to me that quite a lot of what passes for philosophy and theology in our time is really an expression of such enraged libido. Marxist ideology, which I cherished for the first decade of my adult life, seems an especially insidious version of the lust to dominate. It is an ideology of resentment against the way things are, mixed with gnostic-magical beliefs that human nature is capable of transfiguration. In its consistent forms this ideology shows itself to be more than willing to destroy human society first so that the transfigured human being can arise like a phoenix from the ashes.

As a young Christian theologian, I imbibed that kind of ideology of resentment – how could anyone in a modern university imbibe anything else? Then subsequently I started casting about for a theological program that would serve this transformation of a disappointing world. Apocalyptic theology seemed like a good fit.

But many things changed in my life. I was raising three young children at the time, and as I became more acclimatised to childhood I also became less tolerant of revolutionary resentment against the world. It is easy to be willing to tear everything down when you do not have children (i.e., the future) to think about. I also got immersed in the work of educational institutions. This gave me an increasing understanding of the modest ways in which real-world improvements can be made within an existing order. I began first to respect and then – my apocalyptic friends will shudder to hear it – even to like institutions and the laborious ways in which they contrive to make the world a little better.

At the same time, I had somehow become a full-time teacher of Christian doctrine. In this setting I began, both inside and outside the classroom, to read and reread the Christian writers of the first five centuries. I came gradually to a completely new appreciation of the function as well as the limits of Christian doctrine. The doctrine of creation, for example, was important not because it solved all the problems in a satisfactory way, but because it held at bay those powerful world-denying gnostic doctrines that were clamouring for attention in the ancient Mediterranean world. The doctrine was important not so much for what it said as for what it made possible.

And the more I studied the ancient sources of the Christian faith, the more I noticed certain lines of continuity between those ancient gnostic doctrines and our modern ideologies of resentment. A withering hatred of existing order; a cynical despair over political and institutional solutions; a naive assumption that human nature is capable of transformation, and that my group has the magic formula to effect the transformation; an attempt to implement a perfect transcendent order within this world – all this the ancient church had opposed, proclaiming a doctrine of creation in protest against the gnostic ideologies of resentment.

Nowadays I see the Christian doctrine of creation as one of the most important ideas in the world. As far as social and political engagement is concerned, I think the doctrine of creation implies four basic convictions about society. (1) That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order; (2) that the church ought to proclaim this transcendent order in a way that reveals the partial goodness, while also exposing the pretensions, of every social order; (3) and that Christians, having renounced all aspirations to become architects of perfect justice in this world, ought to feel free to work for incremental improvements and approximate justice wherever possible, without feeling that such provisional measures are futile; since (4) such imperfect approximations can serve as a muted but nonetheless still audible witness to that transcendent order which Christians call the coming kingdom of God.

Anyways, that's roughly how I see things. You could still call this an "apocalyptic" perspective, insofar as this world is constantly seen against an ultimate eschatological horizon. But as soon as somebody announces that they have a scheme for bringing the horizon a little closer, I would prefer to bid them a good day and to part company. For horizons do not come closer; and apocalyptic incantations do not alter reality but only the minds of those who use them.

Yours sincerely, &c.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "creation, letters"
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Date: Wednesday, 13 Aug 2014 08:43
by Kim Fabricius

The kindest people are often people who have experienced great sorrow in their lives. Hence the infinite kindness of God.

Imagine buying a jigsaw puzzle of Jesus. Now open the box. If there aren’t lots of pieces missing, you’ve been ripped off – it can’t be Jesus.

“… nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes). Mark Driscoll is, what, 5’10”ish? Then make that nasty, brutish, and medium-height.

Some of us find it hard to pray. Is it because we cannot still our thoughts and focus our attention? Perhaps. But it may be because we are the kind of people who don’t like asking for help.

I am sometimes asked what book I would recommend to an intelligent enquirer at the border of faith, or to an intelligent believer on the brink of doubt. No question: Dawkins’ The God Delusion or Grayling’s The God Argument. Never has atheism been so self-refuting.

God’s Two Books, Nature and the Bible: atheists don’t know how to read the one, and inerrantists don’t know how to read the other. It is not accidental that poets among them are few.

If the tomb was not empty, I would cease to be a Christian. Likewise if the Chicago Statement or Intelligent Design were not empty.

George Tyrell famously wrote that “The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees … is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” Indeed. And when conservative evangelicals look down the same well, they see – “Hell, that ain’t Jesus, it’s good old (perspective) penal Paul!”

You could say that Penal Substitution is the way that God tried decisively to deal with his anger-management issues. It didn’t work. Hence Plan B: Eternal Damnation.

There are two Holy Grails, the Last Supper Chalice and the Immaculate Autograph. The first, at least, is legendary; the second is entirely fantastical.

If you never question the Bible, the Bible will never question you – and then you are in deep shit.

And God looked down upon the crowd and the cross, the braying and the dying, and said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” And it was so.

When I prepare couples for marriage, and discuss the vows, and come to “till death us do part,” I always tell them to cheer up – it could be longer.

Giles Fraser has suggested that assisted dying is the final triumph of market capitalism – or better, Kaputalism (though its colonisation of fourth-wave feminism is also a quality performance) – but not only because of the apotheosis of choice, also because of its privatisation of suffering.

Another better spelling: Terrortories – as in the “Occupied” (or “Disputed” or “Unsettled” [sic]) Terrortories.

I used to think that God made so much sand for deserts and beaches, for their beauty, bleak or balmy. Now I think it’s for sandbags, for protection, from bullets and bombs, swishing and thudding.

“And then one day I asked myself, ‘How is it going to suit you to be called Brother Crow?’” That’s the eponymous hero Jayber Crow in Wendell Berry’s blessing of a novel, querying his call to become a preacher. I know the feeling: Reverend Fabricius has always seemed to me to be somebody else.

Btw, is there a finer modern American novel on the tender, patient, and suffering grace of God in creation than Jayber Crow? Gilead is as fine, but no finer.

To all ministers troubled by a sense of failure – and your point is?

Researchers in France have just published a study in the journal Science which suggests that crustaceans may be able to experience anxiety. Having consulted its sub-committee on psychological profiling, the PCA’s Mission to the World agency is now planning a crusade called Christ for Crayfish.

All writers fear the blank page, good writers fear the finished one.

I’ve stopped in many and various places, for longer or shorter, in my 65+ years: Great Neck and Huntington for childhood and adolescence; Middletown and Oxford for education; Amsterdam and Madrid for art; Kabul and London for dope; Haslemere for farming and Barth; and for 32 years, Swansea for ministry. Many memories, some cloudy but most still pretty clear, from the happy and holy to the harrowing and humiliating. Most of all, however, I remember that I was younger.

Someone recently asked me, admittedly half-seriously, whether I have made a Bucket List. I answered, full-seriously, that I cannot think of a more pathetic denial – of death, certainly – but, above all, of life. With perhaps one exception: to make the perfect martini. Then again, I’ve been trying to do that for the past 30 years. My point is that our intimations of mortality should refocus our attention on the quotidian, not bewitch us with the prodigious.

As I’ve gotten older, I find I’m not as big a sinner as I used to be. It’s sort of sanctification by attrition: I can’t drink enough to get real drunk anymore, I don’t covet and can’t lust like I used to, and what’s there to be vain or proud about? I reckon if I could live to 150 I’d be damned near as sinless as the Saviour.

BREAKING NEWS: Latest casualties in the invasion of Gaza: Proportion and Discrimination. Just War Theory (c. 400 – 2014): RIP.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "doodlings, Kim Fabricius"
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Date: Saturday, 09 Aug 2014 13:43
A guest-review by Steve Wright. David Clough, On Animals. Volume 1: Systematic Theology (T&T Clark) 

Like most academics, I rarely find it necessary to read a book cover to cover in order to ridicule or praise it. I have far too little time and far too many books on my shelves to go about reading them all. Fortunately, within the world of theology, reading is optional. For the index is a perfectly succinct list-form summary of a book’s argument. All one has to do is cross-check the number of entries listed under “Barth, Karl” with “election, the doctrine of” and you know what kind of book you have in your hands. Similarly, any book with entries under “language, the poverty of” spills all its secrets out into the open without the need of perusing a single apophatic line from within its chapters.

A good index, however, is like a good waiter: it not only tells you what you will get for dinner, but invites you to sit down and enjoy the aromas of the kitchen while you make your selection. David Clough has written an index like this. Or, rather, I should say that his theology has spilled into his index, for when one peruses the index of his persuasively written book, On Animals, one finds that it has been invaded by animals. “Bacon, Francis” sits just beneath “baboons”; and “Crisp, Oliver” is sandwiched between “creeping things” and “crocodiles”. Just as naturally as most theological books will list “Balthasar, Hans Urs von”, “Barth Karl”, and “Bultmann, Rudolf” in neat alphabetical order, Clough lines up “cats”, “caterpillars”, “cattle”, and “cauliflower” in his index. All of this to say that Clough has produced an index of creatures – critters and all.

In this book, Clough tests one of the core teachings of Christian orthodoxy that goes back at least as far as Basil: when it comes to being, one is either the Creator of all, or one is a creature. Humanity does not occupy an ontologically ambiguous place between the two, Clough observes, but sits firmly on the creaturely side of the divide. Sticking with the core doctrines of the faith, Clough also notes that the significance of the incarnation is not so much that the eternal Word became a human, as that the eternal Word mysteriously crossed the fundamental divide to become a creature. When God takes on flesh, God takes on creatureliness. A manger was the perfect place for the incarnate God to rest.

Despite the focus on animals, Clough has produced a very human book. His reasoning liberates us from the burden of construing the human as anything other than what it is: an animal among fellows. There are always creatures in the index, but we often separate the “Persons” from the “Subjects”. I might even go as far as to claim that separating humans into their own index is a theological move, betraying at least some relative anthropocentrism. Clough favours a “General Index” filled with all the glorious creatures of God’s creation, from red pandas to onions to John Wesley. It is the best kind of index: one that invites you to read the book.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "animals, book reviews"
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Date: Friday, 08 Aug 2014 12:27
by Kim Fabricius

In these days of risibly, embarrassingly clichéd post-game/match interviews with the victors, imagine the BBC’s Sue Barker at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning…

SB:  Jesus, that was awesome, just awesome.  And that boulder – wow!

JC:  Yes, brilliant, Sue, brilliant. A miracle, really.

SB:  Describe to us your feelings at this moment. 

JC:  To be honest, I’m just happy to be here. It’s so [starting to cry] … the feeling is amazing … [collecting himself] …

SB:  On Friday, we all thought it was finished when you cried out, er, “It’s finished!”

JC:  Me too, Sue. But it isn’t over till it’s over. 

SB:  Satan plays hardball, doesn’t he?  

JC:  He sure does. Satan’s a beast. And at torture and execution the Romans are top-drawer. It was gut-check time. I had to dig deep.

SB:  Defence wins championships.

JC:  It wasn’t about defence, Sue. After all, I was nailed to a cross.

SB:  Still, Jesus, your writhing was terrific.

JC:  I’ve got to thank Peter, my coach, for the writhing. All those dawn whipping sessions – they paid off. No pain, no gain. My wailing could have been better, especially with that crown of thorns, but no excuses. It is what it is.

SB:  And the way you stayed calm when the mob and the two thieves taunted you.

JC:  Just the one, Sue. The other was onside. But, mentally, you’ve got to take the crowd out of the game. At the end of the day, it’s all about character, motivation, focus, doing your job, stepping up to the stake. And faith: you gotta believe.

SB:  You’ve taken a lot of criticism for recent performances: that apocalyptic discourse was weird, and Judas – you’ve got to admit you showed poor judgement about Judas. And at Golgotha, it must have been hard with your mum there.

JC:  Yes and no. Mum has always been a huge support … except for that one time … or two … or maybe three. Come to think of it, she was dead against this gig from the get-go. Still, she’s my mum. Anyway, I’d like to thank her for trying to smuggle the chicken soup past the centurion.

SB:  Anyone else you’d like to thank?

JC:  I’d like to thank my father for raising me.

SB:  Anyone else?

JC:  I’d like to thank my Father for raising me. 

SB:  You just said that.

JC:  No, I mean …

SB:  Jesus, I’m sure everybody is dying to know: what was it like in the tomb? It must have been hell.

JC:  Well, yeah, so to speak. But really, Sue, I couldn’t tell you: I was dead.

SB:  Yes, of course… Anyway, now you’re alive. That’s got to be the greatest come-back of all time.

JC:  Well, I dunno. Lazarus may have something to say about that. And Johnny Cash.

SB:  Always humble, hey Jesus? Look, we’ll let you get back to your fans. Just two more questions: any plans for tonight, and what about the future?

JC:  After the ice bath, an MRI, and a few stitches, I guess me and the lads will have a few carafes. Then a fortnight in the Algarve. Then it’s one patibulum at a time.

SB:  Congratulations on a wonderful win. Ladies and gentlemen, Christus Victor!
[Tumultuous applause.]

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Easter, humour, Kim Fabricius"
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 21:42
For me, the most rewarding part of teaching is introducing my students to primary sources. Each of my classes involves a lecture period plus an hour of small-group tutorials in which the class works its way through a book that I have chosen. In the books that have come down to us from the past, we have access to Christian minds far more energetic and more accommodating than our own. It is a joy to find yourself in the presence of a mind that you cannot fully comprehend. This has always been one of the chief reasons for studying the humanities at all: to learn that the human spirit is larger and more interesting than one's own poor spirit, or (this is the political benefit of studying the humanities) than the spirit of the age.

To read books from the past is also to encounter minds with their own prejudices, parochialisms, and blind spots. But students soon discover that they are able to discern these limitations and to address them. Such scholarly discernment is much more difficult (i.e. usually impossible) if one is reading contemporary authors, since in this case the blind spots of the reader and those of the author tend to be identical. (For more on this, see C. S. Lewis' brilliantly perceptive introduction to Athanasius.) If students are given a book by Moltmann, they will simply absorb it; if they are given Augustine's Confessions, they will be forced to argue with it. I have seen students walk away from my first-year theology class either infatuated with Augustine or infuriated with him; in both cases I am delighted to see that real learning had occurred. But when students read only contemporary authors – even if they are very good authors – something quite dangerous and enfeebling happens. The students come away feeling neither infatuated nor infuriated but only affirmed. Their own prejudices and parochialisms have been reinforced. Their blind spots have become even blinder.

I've also come to believe in the importance of getting students to read whole books, not just excerpts. Anthologies of primary sources have their place. But after using them in some of my classes, I began to notice that the principles of selection tend to obviate the educational benefits of primary sources. The contemporary anthologist will select a passage on atonement from Athanasius, since we all know already that "atonement" is a noteworthy topic. But anthologists will omit all that weird stuff in Athanasius about the martyrs; and they will certainly omit all that offensive stuff about the Jews. Yet it is precisely in the weird and the offensive material that students have the opportunity to observe the author's unspoken assumptions at work. And it is by struggling to account for the author's blind spots that students achieve – or at least have the opportunity to achieve – a certain critical distance from their own unspoken assumptions.

So anyway, this is what I'm most looking forward to in the coming semester. My christology class will be working its way through Irenaeus' Against Heresies Book 3, followed by Athanasius' On the Incarnation. My week-long intensive class on theological anthropology will be discussing Basil's homilies On Human Nature. And my first-year ecclesiology class will be working its way through Bonhoeffer's Life Together. And I'm already looking forward to reading through Julian of Norwich with a class on Christian spirituality next year.

When I first got interested in theology many years ago, it was the concepts and ideas that meant the most to me. Nowadays it's these voices from the past that have come to mean the most to me. And these days the books I love most are not just my own personal favourites, but the ones that are the most teachable. It is the books that foster a community of learning and inquiry in the classroom that I love best, and that keep me enthusiastic about the benefits of theological education.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "teaching"
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Date: Sunday, 22 Jun 2014 22:05
Theologically I am committed to a pretty deep pessimism about human nature. Original sin and all that. The belief that history is not headed anywhere and does not mean anything; that things do not generally improve; that the real problems of life are intractable and almost completely resistant to our flimsy toys of reason, education, therapy, and whatnot; that the only thing really worth hoping for is the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Temperamentally, though, I am an outrageous optimist. I won't be lying if I tell you that I have probably felt optimistic about every human being I ever met. I once knew a mad and rather menacing individual who told me with a scary gleam in his eye that he had been investigated for several murders – and all I could think was that I liked his roguish sense of humour. I was once mugged by a ruthless fellow who threatened me and took a fifty dollar bill right out of my hand – and the whole time I just kept thinking to myself: he is probably doing it to buy his child a birthday present. I have shaken hands with professors of French philosophy, and have been quite willing to believe that even they are not altogether devoid of some residual spark of human goodness.

I say this only to make it perfectly clear that I am not easily angered or disillusioned with my fellow man. He does not disappoint me, because I expect so little of human nature to begin with; he does not disgust me, because I assume the best of him and am always willing to give him another chance. Nobody is beyond redemption, and nobody is above the need for it. My boundless confidence in these two truths makes me, as a rule, quite agreeable.

And yet. There is a chilling scene in the New Testament where St Paul casually mentions that he has handed a couple of his associates over to Satan (1 Tim 1.20). He instructs the Corinthians to hand a certain troublesome parishioner over to Satan too (1 Cor 5.5). That's at least three people who were entrusted to Satan's diabolical care. It's a serious business to deliver a fellow human being into the welcoming arms of the Prince of Darkness. I myself have done it on occasion – on two occasions, to be precise – and it's no laughing matter, believe me. It kind of enervates the spirit, even though when the moment strikes there's no avoiding it.

The first time I ever had to do it was some years ago. A Christian minister, an acquaintance of mine, was preaching a sermon against family values. I cannot recall exactly what he disliked about families, but the gist of it was that he admired them about as much as kidney stones. I guess the family was one of those things that had to be squeezed out before this preacher's Marxiose-revolutionist-liberationary dreams could all come true. To explain the problem with families, the preacher embarked on a very entertaining satirical description of a certain conservative middle-class suburb. He was rather funny, pouring scorn on all the spiritual emptiness and hypocrisy of suburban life. He pronounced the name of the suburb with a kind of sneer that got funnier every time he did it. He had the congregation rolling, positively LOLing, with merriment. He persuaded everybody that this particular suburb was a spectacle worthy of all imaginable ridicule.

The only trouble, reader, was that it was my suburb. I take my shoes off there every night. My dog takes his walks there. My children serve their school detentions there. Some of my dearest neighbours live there. They knock on my door when they need to borrow milk or eggs. They feed the fish when we are away. To the preacher it looked like a funny old-fashioned conservative-voting suburb, but to me it is a community. To me it is people, and I'm pretty fond of them too. If the preacher had spent fifteen hilarious minutes making fun of me, I would have laughed with everyone else and forgotten all about it. But he made fun of my neighbourhood. 

I knew what I had to do. Silently I turned the light of my countenance away from him. Solemnly I consigned him to a spiritual darkness. I handed him over to Satan, hoping that one day he would repent and I would be able to look at him once more.

The second time it happened was even worse. I cannot call the incident to mind without feeling deeply shaken. Even now I can scarcely bring myself to speak of it. It all began innocently enough. A conversation with a learned gentleman about the theatre. Not just any learned gentleman either but a real scholar, an author of books, and not just any books either, but big ones. We exchanged pleasantries about the history of theatre. We chatted about the Greeks. We were enjoying ourselves. Inevitably the conversation turned to Shakespeare. I professed a particular devotion to The Tempest, explaining that I admire the way that play lays bare the essential machinery of the theatre. It is like the Eiffel Tower, I said, a building that exposes to plain view all the engineering that other buildings try to conceal. The Tempest is the quintessential play about plays; it is not so much a play as the blueprint of all drama, the pure Platonic form of Shakespearean comedy, history, and tragedy.

Believe me, reader, I had more to say on this subject of the The Tempest. I was only getting started. Comparisons to eternal forms are only the beginning. You should hear me when I really get going. But at exactly this moment the learned gentleman did a curious thing. He wrinkled his nose. He kind of sniffed in a sniffy sort of way, if you know what I mean. He said, with an air of infinite detachment and world-weariness, "Shakespeare? Ah but have you read the Arabic dramatists? Not to mention the German dramatists. And how much, tell me, how much do you know about the Chinese theatre? Not just the contemporary stuff but the history of it, the history I say. Ah, Chinese drama! Now there's something worth knowing about! You see, my dear fellow," he continued, regarding me with the profoundest boredom in the world, "you see, Shakespeare can't possibly mean anything until you've read everything else. You need to see him in his proper context. Otherwise there's no point saying you love Shakespeare. It's nothing but British imperialism, that's what it is. It's nothing more than –" he cleared his throat in a decisive, disgusted sort of way – "ignorant prejudice."

Very carefully I located the parts of myself from the floor and gingerly began piecing them back together. I wanted to get to the door as quickly as possible but I also had to tread very carefully in case the earth opened up underneath us. I remember the time, as a boy, when I had first experimented with swearing. I whispered the four-letter words reverentially and waited for lightning to strike or for angels to appear in the sky or for the world to collapse in on itself. I felt the same way now, more or less. A fellow human being, made in God's own image, had just described the love of Shakespeare as – it pains me to have to repeat the words – imperialism; ignorance; prejudice.

Now personally I don't mind being insulted. I am as imperial and as ignorant and as prejudicial as the next person. Insult me as much as you like, I deserve every syllable! But my learned interlocutor had not wanted to insult me; that was clear. It was against Shakespeare – which is to say, against Humanity – that his scorn was directed.

If there had been dust on my feet I would have shaken it off. I wanted nothing more to do with this man. I had nothing else to say to him. I had no good news to tell him. He wanted to see Shakespeare "in context": well, let him keep his context, and I will keep Shakespeare! He wanted to peer down his aristocratic nose at the entire human race: well, let him keep his higher vantage point, but I will stick with the human race! Though I loved this person, though I had always respected him, though I admired his learning in the non-Shakespearean departments, I resolved that I would never speak to him again. I would do nothing else for him except to pray for his soul. In a nutshell, I handed him over to Satan so that he might learn not to blaspheme.

Now I know what the moralists out there are thinking. That I should stop handing people over to Satan. That I should forgive and forget. Shake hands and make a fresh start and all that. Leave Beelzebub out of it. Hear me, you moralisers! Listen to me! If you insult me, slander me, criticise my haircut and spit in my eye, I will forgive you quick as a flash. If you pounce on me out of the shadows and take my fifty dollar bill, I will never give it a second thought. If you tell me you might possibly have murdered a few people I will still go on believing the best of you. But don't come to me with malicious words about my neighbourhood! Don't bring me your "contexts" for understanding Shakespeare! For when you do these things, you set yourself above the common human lot. And then you force my hand: for I am all on the side of humanity. If the gods themselves took your side, I would still be unmoved. I would stand right here – with Shakespeare; with humanity; with my neighbours – against all gods.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "demons, Shakespeare, sin"
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Date: Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014 13:36
Next week in Sydney we're having a symposium around the work of Craig Keen. Craig will be presenting some new material, and a line-up of scholars from Australia and abroad will be presenting on various aspects of his work. My paper will be an attempted defence of divine impassibility, titled "Did Jesus Change God? Incarnation and Divine Impassibility".

If you've never read any of Craig Keen's work, check out his two books, The Transgression of the Integrity of God and After Crucifixion.

If you'd like to join us, you've got till the end of the week to register.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Australia, conferences"
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Date: Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 18:43
The next in my spate of Amazon reviews is a short review of Robert Clark's Augustinian-noir detective novel, Mr White's Confession.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Augustine, book reviews, literature"
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Date: Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 08:52
by Kim Fabricius

Global Handwashing Day – flagged up on May 5, celebrated on October 15, but surely it ought to be June 15. Cheers, Pilate!

Speaking of Pilate, here is Pilate speaking, defending the execution of Jesus of Nazareth: “In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.” Oops, my mistake – that’s Al Mohler. Sorry, Pilate.

Encore: Did you hear about the evangelical church in London that wouldn’t allow a Pilates class to hire its church hall? A spokesman said: “If yoga classes are incompatible with Christianity, Pilates classes are the work of the devil.” (Did this actually happen? Not that I am aware. But you wouldn’t be the least bit surprise if it did, would you?)

Culturally and litigiously speaking, the best defence is the taking of offence.

“After many days [weeks, months] of prayerful consideration …” Why the “prayerful” in such introductions to various ecclesial documents and declarations? Like the spokesperson might say, “After prayerless consideration …”? The word is descriptively redundant. The only work it does is rhetorical, conveying a sense of piety, gravitas, perhaps inspiration, while invariably anticipating a baleful conclusion. Of course, as a minster (i.e., a religious professional), I have deployed it myself, but, frankly, it’s eyewash.

It’s “Mother’s Day” (the American paganisation of Mothering Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent). What an ironic end to the week here in the UK, where the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has signalled that women soldiers will soon be allowed to serve in front-line combat roles. As the old Virginia Slims ad put it: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

A sunset, a storm at sea, a starry night – the wonder! Yet also a demonstration of how myopic we are. The mystery of the world is surely its marvellous mundanity.

The accusation of “political correctness” now does double-duty as “spoiler alert”, for it’s a sure sign that the accuser is intellectually lazy and desperate, and that his ensuing screed will be hopelessly hidebound and smug.

Have you ever been to those church-leader breakfasts where you’d think that the disciples had asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to bray”?

Sometimes I wonder if Alzheimer’s disease might be God’s way of shaming the rational and autonomous, of telling us (pace the good bishop of Hippo) that intellect and memory aren’t all they’re cut out to be, that the “man come of age” is but a callow youth, and that a state of confusion and helplessness is both the appropriate and the inevitable posture of humanity coram Deo.

I think the thing I love most about theology is the audacious impertinence of its ridiculousness.

The ESV Bible originates in the USA, so you don’t cross it very often in the UK. In fact – stupid me – I wasn’t aware that the acronym stands for Election – Salvation – Vengeance. And κρίνα in Matthew 6:28 – I’m surprised it isn’t translated as “tulips”.

Did you know that anti-Russian protesters in Kiev have been displaying the Confederate flag? So hardcore southerners were right when they cried, “The South will rise again!” Only, where the hell is Ukraine? A few hundred miles northwest of Georgia, in fact.

Serious atheism is faith cleaning the sanctuary of dust and clutter.

“There are no atheists in foxholes” goes the old aphorism. Arguably there are no Christians there either.

The Lord’s Supper – comfort eating or C-rations?

I have come to appreciate the expression “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour”. It’s useful as a kind of theological spoiler alert of someone who is likely to have made an idol of their own religious experience.

On the other hand, the embarrassment of liberals at saying “I love Jesus” is a great pity. Jesus loves me, and I love Jesus. The stalking tiger, the mother hen, the monstrous crucified, the risen striding stranger? Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? (Augustine). But love it is, so there.

The perspective of contemporary counselling on Jesus in the wilderness, the hills, and the garden: me-time.

How Jesus signs off his emails:
X
X

Today (3 June) the i reports that “Research from the University of Illinois has found that people are more afraid of a hurricane with a male name than a female one and therefore the female-named storms have more casualties.” I guess that means Maisy, Bambi, and Peppa will be scratched from the shortlist of the World Meteorological Organization, and we can soon expect Hurricanes Darth, Damian, and (Katrina’s revenge) Dubya.

Palindrone: an unbrained hotaircraft programmed to fire a political missile that goes forwards, then backwards, and explodes in the face of the speaker who launched it.

What is heaven like? A lot like jail: no rich people.

The fear of Lord’s is the beginning of Wisden.

I give up. Peer pressure has finally got to me. Social networking, here I come. I, who thought a # was a cannabis label, am joining – what are they called? Oh yes: Witter and Faecebook.

Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "doodlings, Kim Fabricius"
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Date: Friday, 06 Jun 2014 22:26
Another Amazon review, this time of Simon Chan's smashing new book on Grassroots Asian Theology (IVP, 2014). Simon Chan teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Asia, book reviews"
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Date: Monday, 02 Jun 2014 23:17
by Kim Fabricius, from a recent wedding in Swansea [names changed]

First, an accent check: How many soldiers here have served in Iraq or Afghanistan? Okay, so you’ll be used to me speaking American. American soldiers – they’re the ones who put the “oops” in “troops” and the “miss” in “missile”.

Doug – soldier; Hester – teacher. I’ve married soldiers, and I’ve married teachers, but never the one to the other. It’s an arrangement with promise. Doug, for instance, will be used to being under authority, and obeying orders even when they’re daft; and Hester will be used to a person in uniform behaving badly, and muttering annoying comments under his breath. Hester, just remember that a husband is like a fine malt whisky: it will take him years to mature – though I wouldn’t get your hopes up for more than a 12-year-old. Doug, I’m afraid for you I have no advice whatsoever.

This is a real, very personal pleasure for me. Of Hester – well, let’s just say of Hester I am very fond. And since she spent a year in the US, even if in the Windy City (Chicago) rather than the Big Apple, add to fond a kind of bond. That’s today’s icing on the cake of preaching at any wedding. I’m now a retired minister, but I’ve been taking fewer and fewer weddings for years. And not just because we now live in a post-Christian society, but also because – well, why get married in a church when you can do it at a fashionable hotel, an atmospheric castle, or a sunny beach abroad?

Yet even in our aggressively secular society, the rumour of God persists. While celebrity is now regarded as a career option, wealth a vocation, and cosmetic surgery the fountain of youth, nevertheless, in the wake of this ubiquitous cultural banality, some silly people will go on asking, “Is that it?” – and sense that no, it isn’t, sense that there is something more, often because in times of great joy or deep trauma – at the birth of a child (or grandchild) perhaps, so outrageously loved, or after a dreadful diagnosis, so irretrievably wrenching – at such times some people hear reality whisper in their ears. Christians suggest that through such “signals of transcendence” God is trying to get in touch with us. And if a couple has been so touched, and they decide that cohabitation isn’t quite commitment enough, that they want to get married but feel that a civil ceremony, wherever, lacks depth, mystery, ultimacy, that “congratulations” doesn’t quite cut it, that a blessing is essential, then they may ask for a church wedding, at which the minister will begin by saying, “We are gathered here in the presence of God …”

Yes, today we are “doing” God, which is quite a counter-cultural thing to do. How so? Well, for example, the church’s suggestion that while “following your feelings” may be the gospel of Hello magazine, a more superficial take on a serious relationship is hard to imagine. The suggestion that, in marriage, so-called “lifestyle choices” and even careers should recede in importance, while raising children should become a sacred possibility. And the suggestion that marrying the “right person” is actually a rather silly idea, as is demonstrated by how often Mr. or Mrs. Right so often becomes Mr. or Mrs. Wrong, and is replaced by Mr. or Mrs. Even-Righter.

Why do people actually get married? In her novel The Other Side of You, Salley Vickers makes an observation about an “elementary … equation [that] is rarely recognised. The reasons for choice of partner are obscure and what passes for love is generally a decidedly mixed bag … [of] lust, anxiety, lack of self-worth … cowardice, fear, recklessness, … the need to control.… There are other, happier ingredients, though these finer impulses can wreak more havoc than the more blackguardly ones.”

A cynical take on marriage? Rather, I think, a candid and accurate assessment. And that’s why it’s not the chemistry, or even the “heart” but, finally, the promises that a couple make that are the crucial factor in a marriage – promises made hoping to God that we may keep them. For, in ourselves, how can we possibly know what promising lifelong fidelity means, not just for bad but for worse? I mean, it’s all very well to assume we will be faithful through flu, flab, and flatulence, but what about MS or Alzheimer’s, or unemployment shattering our precious plans, or our pensions turning to dust? How can we make such radical promises as “until we are parted by death” when we are young, healthy, and earning?

And the honest answer is: we can make them only if we are the kind of people who can be held to the promises we make when we do not really know what we are in for when we make them. Only if – only if Doug and Hester see that love is learned even more than it is given, that love is a skill, a practice; see that love is more the result of a good relationship than the cause of it; see that marriage itself creates the context in which they may discover what love really is and, in the process, who they really are. Only if they see that an enduring relationship is built on the virtues of attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and, above all, sacrifice and forgiveness, each giving more than they expect to receive. Only if they don’t get so wrapped up in themselves that they lose touch with you, their friends, the ones who will keep them sane. And only if the resources on which they draw come not only from within and without, but from above, from the God we are “doing” today.

Finally, that Salley Vickers passage – here is how it ends: “Seldom, very seldom, do two people unite [in marriage] through sheer reciprocal joy in the other’s being.” Hester, Doug, my prayer for you is that you will experience this “sheer reciprocal joy”, and experience it ever more deeply as you grow old together, such that, as wonderful as this day is, it will turn out to be the day in your marriage that you loved each other least.
Author: "Ben Myers (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "Kim Fabricius, love, marriage, sermons"
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