Monday, May 09, 2016

The Tourist (according to Cavanaugh)

This term a few of us got together to read William T. Cavanaugh's magnificent 2008 book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire -- which I highly recommend. In it there's this excerpt from chapter 3, 'The Global and the Local', which I can't get out of my mind:

'The tourist stands detached from all particular times and places and surveys them all from above, as it were. The tourist craves what is different and authentic, but when particular locations make themselves available to the tourist, authenticity and difference are lost. Particularities, especially from the past, are invented for the tourist, but the tourist cannot participate in them. The tourist can go anywhere, but is always nowhere.  

The tourist is a type of consumer, a consumer of places. Consumerism is marked by desire with no telos other than consumption itself. Particularities are interchangeable. Above all, the consumer consumes; rather than being drawn ecstatically into a larger drama, the consumer empties things into the self.  Both the tourist and the consumer try to transcend their own limits by adopting a universal stance detached from and consuming particularities. But when they do so, the self becomes a kind of empty shell, itself dependent on the constant novelty of the particular for its being, yet itself simultaneously destroying the particularity of the many, and thus negating its own being' (74-75).

This is interesting to me on many levels--think church, society, globalism, identity--but the hardest to put my finger on is the personal. Maybe I'm supposed to be learning not to be a tourist. Not easy.

Friday, April 01, 2016

A Review of Ian Paul's 'Evangelical Leadership' (a Grove Booklet)

It used to be that alongside books and articles one of the ways one would get one's ideas into print would be by publishing pamphlets. Today, with the pervasiveness of blogs on one hand and a pejorative association with tracts on the other, one might think the pamphlet tradition difficult to revive. But if there is any merit to the complaints that academic writing is too inaccessible and popular writing is too careless, we might still see some value in the publication of shorter, thoughtful treatments of important topics by accomplished theologians and practitioners.

In Britain, Grove Booklets seem like an attempt to offer just that. Describing themselves as 'fast moving explorations of Christian life and ministry,' they are arranged in ten series ranging from biblical studies to ethics to youth ministry. Two that I picked up in my search for shorter pre-reading assignments recently included A Spirituality of Peacemaking and Leadership Resilience in Conflict. But the one I am reviewing today is Ian Paul's forthcoming next addition to the series, entitled Evangelical Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities.

This 28-page booklet (available here for £3.95) is divided into five short chapters, each of which ends with 'Questions for Reflection' that are intentionally personal, communal, and programmatic. The first chapter, 'Being a Leader', is the one I find most curious, but the remaining chapters show the relevance of the booklet for the church (of Britain) of today.

In chapter 1, 'Being a Leader', Ian Paul makes the simple (but very important) observation 'that "leadership" is not a very biblical word' - at least not as it is so often used today (3). What we ought to recall is that, if anything, the biblical witness borrows many models of leadership in order to encourage and enable a unique group dynamic of 'mutuality' in which authority is 'refracted' rather than concentrated in one place (4-5). If we think we can avoid this concentration by simply rejecting authoritarian models of church we are deluded; if we think we can give no one the responsibilities and empowerments of leadership we are not helping ourselves either. So it is helpful in this chapter that Ian Paul clarifies the 'language of leadership' and points to a 'spirituality of leadership' which fits. I would personally like to have read more about this.

In chapter 2, 'Being Evangelical', we get the observation that evangelicals 'have been good at being a small, persecuted minority' or 'a dominant majority' but 'are not very good at is being a significant but not dominant voice' in the church (8). Today evangelicalism tends not to be separate and distinct but 'diverse' and 'diffuse' - which makes it difficult to pin down (9). Even David Bebbington's classic fourfold outline (conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism) describes an overall phenomenon, not a precise theological definition (11). But that might be a good thing, suggests Ian Paul. What is needed is a vital discussion, not a set of fixed pillars. In that vein, one of the best parts of this chapter is a chart (by Jon Kuhrt) which ranges the tendencies of 'liberal' and 'conservative' evangelicals and challenges them to get past 'tribal theology' to a more appreciative 'dialectical' approach to one another (10-11).

In chapter 3, 'Being Missional', we get treatment of today's most common Christian buzzword (which, like it or not, is better than 'incarnational'). Here Ian Paul does well to point out that just because this term is trending does not mean that mission was previously off the church's radar (15). What we have in evangelical history is not a back and forth between 'mission' and 'maintenance' (wherein the former is loving and the latter is selfish) but an ebb and flow between legitimate emphases and approaches to mission and ministry (20). Churches at once want to 'reach out' and be a place worth 'gathering into': Each has an integrity of its own and an importance to the other. Thus it is helpful that this chapter searches out the tensions between social justice and proclamation, ministry and mission, by considering three models which Ian Paul considers complementary rather than competitive (18-20).

In chapter 4, 'Being Biblical', Ian Paul takes what once might have been a safe assumption about evangelicals and poses 'three major challenges to our engagement with Scripture' which have arisen in recent decades (23). Here we see how 'progressives' highlight the importance of ongoing interpretation, 'institutional' Anglicans emphasize the relative stability of tradition and reason as 'lenses' for doing so, and 'anti-authoritarian hyper-democratics' evoke high participation in the faith that God still speaks today - each of them offering worthy correctives of the other (23-24). Ian Paul rightly argues that they should listen to and then complement one another going forward. This will help them steer clear of their own foibles and gain from their mutual continuities, thus centering the Bible properly in evangelical churches today.

In that spirit, in chapter 5, 'Being Engaged', the evangelical leader of today is encouraged not to see 'discontinuity' with other church-types as a reason to 'disconnect', but quite the opposite. If evangelicalism has anything going for it, then its leaders should seek 'fullest engagement with their churches, with theological thinking, and with wider society' (25).

This is an important call for the church in Britain (and elsewhere) today. Where it has the potential to fragment further we ought to see an opportunity to come together and carry on in the ever-reforming grace of God. For this reason I think this booklet is a commendable resource. In particular I think it would make an excellent small group study for a leadership team on retreat or in the course of its regular meetings.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Top 5 Films Seen and Fiction Read in 2015

Several of these don't actually belong to 2015 but this is when I saw them or read them so that's why they're here. Click links for trailers (but don't watch in full because trailers spoil it sometimes!).
  1. Two Days, One Night
  2. Calvary 
  3. The Overnighters
  4. Foxcatcher
  5. Birdman

  1. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
  2. Marilynne Robinson, Home
  3. Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (see my review here)
  4. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
  5. Andy Weir, The Martian


Here I was reading from all over the centuries so it would be even more of a stretch to venture a top five for 2015. However, the best recent-vintage books I read were Scott Prather's Christ, Power and Mammon, Robert Song's Covenant and Calling, and Amos Yong's The Bible, Disability and the Church. The best old books I read were Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. And the most disappointing books I read this year were Scot McKnight's Fellowship of Differents and Tim Suttle's Shrink. The worst book was Heaven is for Real but it was actually better than I expected.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Bonhoeffer on Freedom and Responsibility

Ever since reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics I've been thinking long and hard about his view of moral responsibility as something owed ultimately and daily to the command of Christ in complex, messy situations rather than to abstract principles or timeless duties.

In Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison we find a succinct and compelling expression of this in a paper-fragment titled 'Who Stands His Ground?' The following excerpt quotes roughly half of that paper:

'The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all our ethical preconceptions. This appearance of evil in the guise of light, beneficence and historical necessity is utterly bewildering to anyone nurtured in our traditional ethical systems. But for the Christian who frames his life on the Bible it simply confirms the radical evilness of evil.

[Before continuing, Bonhoeffer considers and finds wanting the 'ethical systems' of 'rationalism', 'moral fanaticism', reliance on one's 'conscience', and 'duty'.]

What then of the man of freedom? He is the man who aspires to stand his ground in the world, who values the necessary deed more highly than a clear conscience or the duties of his calling, who is ready to sacrifice a barren principle for a fruitful compromise or a barren mediocrity for a fruitful radicalism. What then of him? He must beware lest his freedom should become his own undoing. For in choosing the lesser of two evils he may fail to see that the greater evil he seeks to avoid may prove the lesser. Here we have the raw material of tragedy.

Some seek refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public life in the sanctuary of their own private virtue. Such men however are compelled to seal their lips and shut their eyes to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep themselves pure from the defilements incurred by responsible action. For all that they achieve, that which they leave undone will still torment their peace of mind. They will either go to pieces in face of disquiet, or develop into the most hypocritical of all Pharisees.

Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God. The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.'

- quoted from pages 135-7 of the 1960 Fontana publication
(bold print added, masculine language refers to all persons)

I'm sure there are plenty of others who are far ahead of me in their thinking on this, but I offer it here because--to quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No Country for Old Men--'it has left quite an impression on me'. In fact, one might quote that character even further in responding to Bonhoeffer:

'I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."'

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Theological Symposium at Trinity College on 15 October

I'll soon be part of a theological symposium hosted by Trinity College Bristol, in partnership with Bristol Baptist College, exploring:

A Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis

The event is from 2 – 4 pm on Thursday, 15 October 2015, in the chapel at Trinity College. The plan is to hear and discuss three papers, including:

Rev Dr Knut Heim, ‘Attitudes Toward Foreigners in the Bible’

Rev Dr Helen Paynter, ‘Reflections on Jubilee in the Light of the Refugee Crisis’

Rev Dr Jon Coutts, ‘Who is my Neighbour? Questions of Proximity, Awareness and Responsibility’

This is a free public event, with coffee/tea provided afterward. For more information see the college website.