Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bad Words II: "No Crying He Makes"

If you went to any Christmas concerts this year you likely heard children singing Away in a Manger, and if you are like me, you probably groaned a little bit inside when they came to the line: "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." I mean, come on, who are we kidding here?

God either became human in this child, or this child is relatively meaningless. God either met humanity in its finitude, its creatureliness, its pain, its suffering, and even its sin---or God did not meet us here at all. And if Jesus as a grown man wept openly outside the tomb of Lazarus, moments before raising him to life, and was indignant at the sorrow, then why should Christians imagine even for a second that he shed not a tear in his infancy?

I can think of a few reasons why the song might signify the Messiah's birth this way, and on the surface some of them aren't entirely bad. The most obvious is that this song is just a Sunday School lullaby for children. So lighten up, Jon.

A second reason is that the song wants to portray the grander peace on earth represented in this baby, and is seizing upon a magnificent parent-child moment which undoubtedly did happen in Jesus' infancy (there is no reason to think he cried constantly and never slept) in order to drive home this point.

A third reason is that, like pretty much every painting of the nativity, the song wishes to depict the divinity of this child and the gravity of this moment, and so puts a halo around the heads and sublimity on the faces so that we'll distinguish it from the picture of just any old mother and son.

Fair enough, I suppose. But I think there are serious problems with each of these reasons. Even the lullaby one: If you think about it, isn't it kind of a sideways attempt to ingrain children with the notion that crying is bad? This needs to be thrown in the rubbish along with the line "be a man and stop crying". Furthermore, as a children's Christmas song it therefore teaches children precisely the opposite of what they should be taught, and that is that the Son of God was not just a man, but a child like them, and came even as far as to be with them in their (often dismissed as petty and trivial but to them potent and real) suffering.

The second and third reasons are well-intentioned enough, but on further inspection are found seriously wanting. Certainly, the angels do declare this very birth scene as peace on earth. No doubt, the Creator's inhabiting of creation puts to rest our fears that chaos and enmity will have the last word. The Creator's covenant of grace with His creation goes this far, and so this moment right here is the profoundest ontological peace the world has ever known. Sure we can sing this song and just focus on the peace it is trying to portray, but even then, what earthly peace have you ever known that was not born through tears?

And yes, certainly, the significance of this particular birth is the divinity of the child---something it might be difficult to communicate artistically without halos and tearless babies. I get that, and as I scoured images of "Madonna With Child" this week I realized as I looked in vain for an "unsettled" baby Jesus that perhaps it was more respectful not to depict him this way. That said, its not like the song avoids singing about it. It actually says "no crying he makes"--- and theologically this is tantamount to either misleading folly or sheer doceticism (rejected by early church teachers as the notion that Jesus was fully divine but took human appearance as a ruse).

The very reason this is peace on earth is that God has come. He has not just scratched the surface of humanity, but come all the way into it, taking to himself our suffering, our pain, our sin and our death. Without this, God is merely a visitor: There is no seizing of humanity in its finite and fallen condition in order to reconcile it to God. God could have done that if He so choose, but that's not what Christmas celebrates.

Furthermore, if what does set this birth apart is the child's divinity, let's remember that if we depict him as aloof to our pain and our plight we are exalting not the God revealed in Christ but a false god of our own making. This God, the Christmas God, is the God who humbles himself. This very incarnation, so starkly absurd to our proud human sensibilities, is exactly the type of condescending grace that is so becoming of the eternally self-giving Son of God; not to mention his sending Father and the Spirit who brings Him to the world.

This is definitely something worth singing peace-riddled songs about. Like the one our church has been singing this year called "Immanuel", by Stuart Townend. It is wonderful. It begins:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable
By the Spirit and a virgin's faith
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Savior of the human race
But the skies were filled
With the praise of heav'n
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the gift of God come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel

King of heaven now the friend of sinners
Humble servant in the Father's hands
Filled with power and the Holy Spirit
Filled with mercy for the broken man
Yes He walked my road and He felt my pain
Joys and sorrows that I know so well
Yet His righteous steps give me hope again
I will follow my Immanuel

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Striking Statement

"If a man can acquiesce in divisions, if he can even take pleasure in them, if he can be complacent in relation to the obvious faults and errors of others and therefore his own responsibility for them, then that man may be a good and loyal confessor in the sense of his own particular denomination, he may be a good Roman Catholic or Reformed or Orthodox or Baptist, but he must not imagine that he is a good Christian."
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 676

By the way, I may begin a tradition with my "bad words" series where I follow it up with the related "good news" that lies behind or redeems the language. For the last post the "good news" sneaks its way in on comment 1o. Thanks as always for all interaction. Please feel free to continue!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bad Words in Church: "Saving Faith"

I'm going to start a little series of posts about sloppy church language. You know: Stuff that we say and keep on saying which perhaps at one time offered an important point of clarification but with overuse has become misleading and stereotype-feeding and even detrimental to the Church's self-understanding. When they get that far they become bad words. And for all our infamous concern for swearing, I think these ought to concern us at least as much if not more.

So this series is about pointing out a few places where I think we've coloured way out of the lines, perhaps in the small hope that I can sort out the caricature from the portrait, at least for myself. Feel free to push me, point out the silver lining in the language, rebuke me for my smarty pants cynicism, or praise my genius. Anyone who can do all of that in one comment gets bonus points. I don't know if I'll do this series over time or all at once, but there's your intro. You'll recognize them when you see them. So without further ado, today's bad words are "saving faith".

The other day I was asked what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ, and I described belief, or "saving faith" as essentially a kind of "living trust". Moments later I sat myself down to read and had a decades old challenge land squarely on the chin, dealt by none other than Karl Barth (yeah this is happening to me a lot lately). In Church Dogmatics IV.1, he is preparing to address the issue of "justification by faith alone", and precedes his answer to the question by describing what Christian faith is not. See what you think:

"Justification by faith" cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. As his action, the action of sinful man, faith cannot do this.

Nor does it make any odds whether a man means by faith a mere knowledge and intellectual understanding . . . , or an assent of the mind and will . . . , or finally a heart's trust in the significance of the work for himself . . . . It is not in and with all this that a man justifies himself . . .

There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation in contrast to his way in wicked works, or his way of true salvation in contrast to his way in the supposed good works of false faith and superstition. Faith is not an alternative to these other ways. It is not the way which . . . . he can choose and enter by the same capacity by which he might go any other way. Even in the action of faith he is the sinful man who as such is not in a position to justify himself . . . .

Even as a believer he can represent himself to God only as the one he is in virtue of his past, only with the request: "God be merciful to me, a sinner."

He is as little justified in faith as in his other good or evil works. He needs justification just as much in faith as anywhere else, as in the totality of his being. . . . The image of himself as a believer---in so far as he has time and the desire to concern himself with it---can only incite and impel him to that other request: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). There is as little praise of man on the basis of his faith as on that of his works.

For there is as little justification of man "by"---that is to say, by means of---the faith produced by him, by his treading the way of faith, by his achievement of the emotions and thoughts and acts of faith, by his whole consciousness of faith and life of faith, as there is a justification "by" any other works. Faith is not at all the supreme and true and finally successful form of self-justification.

If it tried to be this, if man tried to believe with this purpose and intention and claim, then even if his faith was not a "dead" faith, even if it was a most "hearty" faith, even if it was fiduciary faith most active in love, it would be the supreme and most proper form of his sin as the sin of pride. . . . It is the enterprise and conduct of a Pharisaism which is the most evil Pharisaism of all: the Pharisaism of the publican [cf. Lk 18:9-14].

It may well happen that the most audacious man of works, the Christian or secular pietist or activist, will go back to his house justified rather than this man: not by his little works but because---who can tell?---there is perhaps behind his works in some hidden form a real faith which is completely lacking in the one who simply justifies himself in all his righteousness of faith (pp. 615-617).

I'm not sure I need to add to that. He didn't use these words, but dispelled them pretty clearly. In terms of Christian speech about redemption, "saving" is not a verb which allows our faith as its subject. Neither is it an adjective which has faith as its noun.

Barth said a lot more there as well, and as a contemporary evangelical I think I must stand under his rebuke and challenge.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Meston Walk, Part Three

I really enjoy my walks to school. I have already shared something of them through poe-try and photo-graphy. But did you know you can actually take these walks yourself using Google Maps Street View? This is an incredible feature that allows you to drag a little stick man onto blue highlighted areas of the map and get a multi-angled interactive street view.

I'm not presuming you'll care to bother, but if indeed you do so desire you can join me on my walk to school by double clicking your way between the rock walls of Meston Walk or along the cobble stones of College Bounds. You can stop where you please and take your pick of angles from which to view the buildings of King's College. Maybe you've seen this already: It is really quite incredible. But if not, before you try it---a warning:

Before we moved here I checked out several of Aberdeen's street views, and as a result there is still one stretch of road near the beach that has been all but ruined for me because of this previewing experience. Whenever we are there in person now I get a deja vu to when I was on that road "virtually" this summer. It is really quite odd. It is like my present reality is tainted by my previous virtual voyeurism. I have to give my head a shake to re-enter the current moment.

It also sent a surreal shiver up my spine when we were flying into Aberdeen for the first time and I saw that very stretch of road from the plane window, exactly as it looked from satellite photos. In that case the image hitting my eyes was the same but the experience was on a totally different level. It was moving below me. I felt turbulence. Clouds zoomed past the window. We descended. Almost imperceptible waves flowed to the shore. The sound of jet engines was muffled only by popping ears. And there was the surmounting reality of touch down and feet to ground. Where I had previously been straining to imagine the real, here it was hurtling past me at many miles an hour and hitting me like a ton of bricks. The preview hadn't ruined reality so much as been nothing close to it.

I think we all know that pretty instinctively about images and "virtual reality", maybe because most of us (?) can remember a pre-computer time in our lives. But it has struck me these last few months of walking that there is a similar thing going on with automotive transport. We have a van now, and I'm very thankful for it, but there are still many place where I would still simply rather walk. The other night I paused outside the van, put my key in my pocket, and walked 30 minutes there and back in the dark and the rain, simply out of preference! No regrets.

There is something about having to jostle past people on the sidewalk; feeling raindrops as you see them hit puddles; seeing the wind move the trees and then sensing it moments later confront the skin; or noticing a pigeon perched comically beside a man on a park bench and having the luxury to pause and observe.

What is the something? Is it more wholesome; connected; real?

There's this line at the beginning of the movie Crash about how in LA people only ever encounter each other from behind car windows, and so they crash into each other to feel the presence of other people; to know they are not alone. At first I thought it was a really hokey line. I still think that of the crashing part, but not the rest of it.

There is something disconnecting and un-real about experiencing everything through glass--be it the screen or the windshield.

That said, I am not about to become a Luddite. Wouldn't I rather have the option to drive to Edinburgh than be stuck with the radius of wherever my feet (or, more constricting yet, my kid's feet) can take me? Wouldn't I rather be interacting with the lot of you on this fandangled intra-web than not at all? Of course! There is much that is gained from having a vehicle and from having the internet. Communication and accessibility that were not there before. This is good, just so long as it is an enhancement of or supplement to reality rather than a replacement of it. I just wonder if we always realize when we've crossed that line.

So anyway, basically I'm inviting you to join me on my walk to school through the marvel of technology, with the caveat advice that if you ever plan to visit in person you may wish to consider passing on the virtual preview---it just may turn reality into deja vu and radically dislocate your brain. No biggie though.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ryan Adams' Cardinology

About a year ago I eagerly snatched up Ryan Adams and the Cardinals' latest album, Cardinology---and then hardly listened to it. It wasn't bad, it didn't disappoint, it just didn't do anything special for me.

But the other day it made it back on to my nano and, hot dang, what an album! It has a gospel-album feel (except heavier on the lament), and as the title might suggest, has a lyrical life-reflectiveness about it.

A couple of the songs on this album are, to my ears, dull. "Magick" is one of them. But on the other hand it has a few that are downright pleasant, and the guitar work is just splendid. "Born into a Light" is a great start, "Fix it" is classic Adams (see it on Letterman), and "Let Us Down Easy" is frankly just gorgeous. We just sat and listened to it in silence twice in a row the other night and in trying to describe the song after I used the adjective "beautiful" a few more times than can retain any suitable meaning.

At the moment I'm not really interested in picking this album apart for its implicit "ology", put-on or otherwise, but I do enjoy having lyrics that pluck at the mind-strings here, express my heart there; question my premises here, and beg questions in return there. Without laying out for you which is which, here are some of the lines really ringing around in my cranium these days, from this own song especially:

From "Let Us Down Easy":

In all my life, Mercy
hasn't known my name this well
Like how every sea
filters out and leads us gently to a creek we sit around
Some of us are strong
but the rest of us are weak

So let us down
if you must
But let us down easy
Lord . . . .

So pray'n at night I tell God these jokes
He must be tired of Himself so much
He must be more than disappointed
Christmas comes we eat alone . . .

Let her down,
but if you must
Let us down easy
Lord . . . .

Not sure exactly what he means by that, but I just think of the many ways I'm brought to the end of myself, even in the things I think I'm doing completely for God, and I note God's "pastoral" way of confronting me---sometimes heavily and obviously; sometimes subtly, as if I discovered it on my own---and it all has a melancholy but at base hopeful and uplifting bitter-sweetness to it. As does this song.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

St Andrew's Day

The kids have the day off from school on Monday. Turns out it is a national holiday in Scotland-- St. Andrew's Day, actually. I wasn't sure which Andrew we were talking about here so I looked it up. Its the disciple Andrew.

It just so happens that I'm leading the service at our church Sunday morning and figured maybe I'd talk about St. Andrew a little bit, maybe find a prayer or confession we could share together. In my digging here are some of the interesting things I found:

* Andrew (with an unnamed disciple, probably John), was the first to follow Jesus of Nazareth, after John the Baptist called him "the Lamb of God". First thing Andrew did was tell Peter.

* The Catholic church traces its apostolic succession back to Peter, but some Eastern Orthodox trace back to Andrew.

* I've always thought Andrew was a cool disciple. Behind the scenes, not too quotable, perhaps, but a presence worthy of mention fairly often nonetheless. We know him best simply for his friendship and brotherhood. I think it is great that the first thing that happens when he meets Jesus is that a lightbulb goes on in his head and he goes and finds someone else and says: "Oh man, I've found someone totally for you."

* After Jesus' ascension, tradition has it that Andrew's mission took him to Asia, even as far as Kiev.

* Andrew is the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Romania, a few smaller countries, and . . . Scotland!

* A "patron saint", incidentally, is a saint designated to a certain group of people to be their intercessor in heaven. Although intercession in heaven by anyone other than Christ is a pretty unbiblical and theologically wanting notion, I must admit that the patron saint designation does have a certain charm to it. I think the tradition arose with decent enough intentions, as people considered it a show of humility to not dare address God directly in Christ. Sometimes I think we might stand to be reminded of this humble attitude, so that we might not take it so for granted when we "boldly approach the throne of grace" in Jesus' name. Anyways, while I don't really go in for praying to patron saints thing, I like that these designations exist. I like remembering and incorporating the ancients into our lives. I feel grateful for the ancients of the faith and the untitled saints of book and song and wish I did more to thank God for them publicly and even at the dinner table. But I digress.

* According to Wikipedia, Andrew is also the patron saint of fishermen, army rangers, rope makers, singers, and musicians.

* Tradition has it that Andrew was crucified for his faith, but requested that he not be hung the same way as his Lord, considering himself unworthy of such distinction. So he was hung on an x-shaped cross, or saltire.

* Apparently there are a few relics of St. Andrew in Patros, Italy. I think a portion of one of his fingers and a piece of his cranium are considered locked away there. On one level I find devotion to relics pretty superstitious and even sort of creepy. But on another level, I love it that such incredible respect can be shown and remembrance given to these people of the past.

* In the 9th century, King Angus MacFergus was leading the Picts and Scots into war against the Angles and in a frightful sleep the night before the decisive day of the battle had a dream where he was visited by St. Andrew, assuring him of victory. According to lore, a white saltire appeared in the blue sky over the battlefield the next day and scared the Angles away.

* And if you haven't guessed by now, yes, this very image is now the Scottish flag (and also accounts for the white x behind the cross on the Union Jack).

I was unable to find a really great prayer or confession to use in church on Sunday, but will do a small quiz on some of the above before reading about Andrew's call to discipleship from John 1. One thing I did find, however, was the following prayer to St. Andrew. For reasons already mentioned I can't really see praying it to him, but putting that aside I must say I find it a beautiful poem of the faith--a sort of imaginative joining-in with that great cloud of witnesses:

"O glorious St. Andrew, you were the first to recognize and follow the Lamb of God. With your friend, St. John, you remained with Jesus for that first day, for your entire life, and now throughout eternity. As you led your brother, St. Peter, to Christ and many others after him, draw us also to Him. Teach us to lead others to Christ solely out of love for Him and dedication in His service. Help us to learn the lesson of the Cross and to carry our daily crosses without complaint so that they may carry us to Jesus. Amen."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quite the Gift

We moved to Scotland prepared to not own a vehicle and have been walking for three months. In many ways this has been to our delight, and is a habit we will try to incorporate into our lifestyle as much as possible. But it has its limits. And lo and behold, some friends in our church have purchased for us one of these:

Among other things, this Mazda Bongo will open up the Highlands to us a whole new way. Quite the gift.

I am taking the train down to Burnley (via Glasgow) tomorrow to get it. Then I'm driving the same basic route 6+ hours straight back. I'm going to see (and yet not see) a lot of Britain tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking about Justice and Forgiveness

I don't believe there is a more paradigmatic event than the crucifixion of the Son of God for our reflection on evil, suffering and redemption, but there are events large and small in our own history and our collective history which do give pause and serve as walls from which these themes echo back at us. For the 20th century Western mind, the holocaust was a one massive event in that regard.

In an an endeavour to appreciate the different angles from which people approach the issue of forgiveness I recently read Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower. When it comes to grappling with the holocaust, I'd probably first recommend Elie Wiesel's Night, but barely. This one is even more succinct and thus perhaps more powerful. But my intent here is not to offer a review but to share some excerpts from the symposium that follows the story.

To set up the context for these excerpts, reading the story would help, but if you have even a passing awareness of the horrors of genocide (be it 1940s Germany or 1990s Rwanda or other), you can probably appreciate the dilemma it presents. The book-jacket at left sums it up: "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do? It is a true story, and a good question.

As I read the responses from 32 lawyers, Jews, Christians, atheist, literary critics, and so on I was struck by (1) the complexity of the simple question, (2) the incredible variety in their answers, and (3) the difficulty one might at times have pegging the world-view with the author based solely on their answers.

Here are a few exerpts from their answers so you can see what I mean (I've summarized content in some cases for brevity). I encourage you to try to recognize elements of your own answer in them, and also to have your answer challenged:

Cynthia Ozek:
“Forgiveness is pitless. It forgets the victim. It negates the right of the victim to his own life. It blurs over the suffering and death. It drowns the past. It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of insensitiveness toward the victim. . . . Whoever forgives the murderer blinds himself to the vastest letting of blood . . . . It is forgiveness that is relentless. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered.”

Of course, vengeance isn't ideal either. “If it could, vengeance on a mass murderer would mean killing all the members of his family and a great fraction of his nation; and still his victims would not come alive.” . . . But “public justice” of some kind must be done or else we condone evil.

Ironically, this was a man brought up within Christianity who was asking forgiveness from a Jewish victim! How embroiled in all of this is Christianity anyway? Ozek asks: “Does the habit, inculcated in infancy, of worshiping a Master—a Master depicted in human form yet seen to be omnipotent—make it easier to accept a Fuhrer?” (p. 184-187).

Edward H. Flannery:
“Is not the failure to transcend this [offender's evil] condition another triumph for the brutalizing and dehumanizing process?” As an oriental sage wrote: “If hate is met with hate, where will it all end?” Thus, “to refuse pardon after repentance is a form of hate, however disguised” (p. 113, 117).

Martin E. Marty:
“We do not want cheap grace, a casual people, or a forgotten victim. What do we want? I am on a search for grace in the world. . . . Gracelessness helps produce totalitarianism as much as cheap grace might. If there is to be grace, it must be mediated through people. We have to see potentials in the lives of even the worst people, have to see that it is we who can dam the flow of grace. . . .

If I forgive in the face of true repentance and new resolve, I am free. . . . . I can let my being haunted preoccupy me so that I do not notice ‘the other.’ Forgiving and being forgiven are experiences that allow me to be free for a new day” (p. 174).

David Daiches:
“There is some sense in the idea . . . that only God can forgive, because a true moral offence is an offence against divine order in the universe. As between human beings, it seems to me that forgiveness is a formula for eliminating unprofitable brooding on the one hand and self-reproach on the other, and as such I suppose it is socially necessary." . . . But there’s a difference between “little things of life” and the holocaust (p. 107-108).

Hans Habe:
“One of the worst crimes of the Nazist regime was that it made it so hard to forgive. It led us into the labyrinth of our souls. We must find a way out of the labyrinth—not for the murderer’s sake, but for our own. Neither love alone expressed in forgiveness, nor justice alone, exacting punishment, will lead us out of the maze. A demand for both atonement and forgiveness is not self-contradictory; when a man has wilfully extinguished the life of another, atonement is the prerequisite for forgiveness. Exercised with love and justice, atonement and forgiveness serve the same end: life without hatred. That is our goal: I see no other” (p. 124).

Friedrich Heer:
“The sun of Simon Wiesenthal’s Sunflower has the fiery breath of the desert sun. It singes everything that is ‘human’ and ‘all-too-humane’. Thus in the desert, in the night of humanity, stand three persons, facing each other but divided by gulfs and abysses—the young murderer, the man of the people of Israel, and the third is the invisible God, who cannot be reached or talked over by pious phrases. This God has assigned to man a responsibility which he, the man, in this last desperate case cannot carry. Paradox of Godhead, paradox of humanity! Both are incapable of elucidation. For both there is no ‘solution’, no ‘redemption’, and without it one must resign oneself to remaining unenlightened, watchful, and in pain” (p. 128).

John M. Oesterreicher:
“The God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ is thus not a kind of understudy or heavenly minuteman, He is the One who lives and suffers with His own” (183).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Doomsday is so AD 33

Enough has probably been said here and elsewhere (quite excellently, Colin) about the upcoming movie, The Road, and the extent to which it will fail to be true to the book from which it derives. It should be no surprise, given the dearth of Hollywood films portraying an apocalyptic Judgment Day in recent decades, that it will contain dramatic scenes of the global disaster that merely provides the (gratefully) un-described backdrop for the book's true focus, which is the grasping for life of a father and son in bare crisis.

Be that as it may. But what I want to think about is why? What is this fascination with the "end times"? To my dismay it seems that my evangelical church experience emerged from the suffocating fear-mongering of "end times" paranoia just in time for the culture at large to pick it up and take it (even less redemptively) from there.

Okay, I don't exactly know why. Its one of those film-trends I don't get, along with Vampire movies and the whole freakish Saw thing. But I've been thinking about all of this ever since reading NT Wright's Surprised By Hope (and before that I'm sure):

What is our fascination with doomsday? Especially in the church. Should our forward outlook not be characterized by hope? And, to take it further, is Judgment Day ultimately even a future event?

I left my copy of Wright's book at home, but what I am reading these days is Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation, and this all came flooding to mind again as I read the following words from volume IV.1:

"All sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge. And in wanting to be that, and thinking and acting accordingly, he and his whole world is in conflict with God. It is an unreconciled world, and therefore a suffering world, a world given up to destruction. . . . And as a world hostile to God it is distinguished by the fact that in this way it repeats the very sin of which it acquits itself. . . . And for this reason the incarnation of the Word means the judgment, the judgment of rejection and condemnation, which is passed on all flesh. Not all men commit all sins, but all men commit this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins. There is not one who can boast that he does not commit it. And this is what is revealed and rejected and condemned as an act of wrong-doing by the coming of the Son of God. This is what makes His coming a coming to judgment, and His office as Saviour His office as our Judge" (220, emphasis mine).

Did you catch that? Is it possible, even proper, to speak of Good Friday--and not some future cataclysm however possible or likely--as the paradigmatic Judgment Day? Is that not the day where we see definitively our sin and our judgment? On the cross (condemned) and from the empty tomb (overcome)? And if so, what does it say that we are now, in the present, alive and looking back on it through Easter Sunday?!! More from Barth:

"The Christian community are those who hear the promise given to the world of people, just as they are those who hear the verdict pronounced on it and the direction given to it. . . . They are those who have the perspective that they will "live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him." In "Jesus Christ the promise or pledge of God--which cannot be compared with anything we might promise ourselves--is already given to us. It is actually made to the world. So then (without having to create illusions about itself) the world is no longer a world without hope" (114-115, emphasis mine).

I'm not trying to deny the biblical portrayal of a day of reckoning of some sort, nor that the hope laid out in Scripture is a new heaven and earth that eclipses the old in some way. I do not wish to counter the error of earthly despair with one of naive triumphalism. But I most certainly do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or a tribulation of the sort envisioned by the over-productive pens of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I have some thoughts and opinions brewing about such things as hell and heaven and the so-called "end times", but what I believe in and am oriented by is Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.

In Surprised by Hope (which I can't recommend highly enough (if for no other reason than its mixture of readability and intelligence), Wright addresses the question of Jesus' sovereignty over the messed-up world (upon which these doomsday movies seem so intent to fix our eyes), and describes the startlingly hopeful life to which only the risen Jesus can summon us:

Living in this hope is not a matter of “simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has sometimes been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But neither is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshipping Jesus in a kind of private sphere. Somehow there is a third option, . . . [and we] can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed” (112).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Meston Walk, Part Two

The family actually got out the door early this morning, and enjoyed a sunny winter's meander through campus to church. This is the second part of Meston Walk, where it leaves the library and runs down to High Street and then King's College. It was a very fine day. Thought maybe you'd like to come along.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Slavoj Zizek: Self-love, Otherness, & Art vs. Science

Out of nowhere on Friday another Slavoj Zizek book jumped off the shelf at me and stole a good hour from my day. He fascinates me, and its not just because he quotes Chesterton all the time. I've written about him before, but what got me this time was a book he co-authored with two others, called The Neighbor.

Zizek has a knack for mining pop culture, the arts, philosophy and religion and melding bold reinterpretations of them together to form a seemingly scattered yet strangely seamless argument. The following exerpt is no exception. Though I am intrigued by a lot this passage has to say regarding sociology and even theology, there's one nugget I've put in bold because it does something I've never seen before: It pits art and science against each other and suggests that art (ideally) is a more reliable gateway to understanding. Check it all out and see what you think. Zizek writes:

"Today, we seem effectively to be at the opposite point of the ideology of the 1960s: the mottos of spontaneity, creative self-expression, and so on, are taken over by the System; in other words, the old logic of the system reproducing itself through repressing and rigidly channeling the subject's spontaneous impulses is left behind.

Nonalienated spontaneity, self-expression, self-realization, they all directly serve the system [which Zizek has just argued thrives on the white noise of our 'unconstrained permissiveness'], which is why pitiless self-censorship is a sine qua non of emancipatory politics.

Especially in the domain of poetic art, this means that one should totally reject any attitude of self-expression, of displaying one's innermost turmoil, desires, and dreams. True art has nothing whatsoever to do with disgusting emotional exhibitionism . . . . If there is a thing that provokes disgust in a true poet, it is the scene of a close friend opening up his heart, spilling out all the dirt of his inner life.

Consequently, one should totally reject the standard opposition of 'objective' science focused on reality and 'subjective' art focused on emotional reaction to it and self-expression: if anything, true art is more asubjective than science. In science, I remain a person with my pathological features, I just assert objectivity outside it, while in true art, the artist has to undergo a radical self-objectivization, he has to die in and for himself, turn into a kind of living dead. . . .

In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my Other/Neighbor to my mirror-image or to the means in the path of my self-realization . . . , Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my Neighbor---the Neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me. . . .

The radical conclusion to be drawn from this is that one should renounce striving for one's own (spiritual) salvation as the highest form of egotism. According to Lean Brunschvicg: 'The pre-occupation with our salvation is a remnant of self-love, a trace of natural egocentrism from which we must be torn by the religious life. As long as you think only salvation, you turn your back on God. God is God, only for the person who overcomes the temptation to degrade Him and use Him for his own ends.'"

- Excerpted from chapter 3, "Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence", p. 134-142

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Karl Barth on Christ-ian Forgiveness

I have only just begun my deep foray into Barth's theology of forgiveness, but the following extracts seem to me to be fairly indicative of his direction. He can certainly be found within his Reformed tradition, but with unique emphases and critiques. What I notice first off is his a resistance to talk of forgiveness as a static religious principle to be accepted or applied and a preference toward apprehending forgiveness as the free, dynamic, life-giving act of the God-man Jesus Christ. Here is an excerpt from The Doctrine of Reconciliation:

"We can and should, therefore, rise up and rejoice thankfully in the incomprehensible comfort and forgiveness of God, in all the assistance which we are given, in all the great and little lights which shine on our way, in all the strengthenings and encouragements, in short in all the unmerited favours addressed to us by the love of God.

Yet we should also be prepared sooner or later to be recalled in some way to his limits by this love, to find ourselves forcefully redirected to the humility which we so easily forget and loses when we bask in the divine sunshine.

For it is God Himself, and not just a lucky fate, which is favourable to us.

And so, when that which we have deserved overtakes us, the same can and should bow before it, humbling ourselves to the dust, finding ourselves absolutely directed to accept the awful things which he does not like, allowing ourselves to be led where we do not want to go, yet clinging to the fact-for it is in the same love of God that these things come to us-that we will not fall into the abyss but will still be upheld.

Even in these circumstances, there are always lights in the darkness, forgiveness in guilt, new life in death, breaks in the engulfing clouds, encouragements in despair. There is always reason for thankfulness even in the anguish in which we think to perish.

For it is God Himself and not a sinister and hostile force who judges us.

In both respects we have to do with the presence and action of God in its dynamic opposition to our perversion and corruption. In both cases the aim is our purification. God utters a Nevertheless, a merciful Therefore, both when He gives what is undeserved with goodness and what is deserved with severity. It is always His fatherly hand which is active both morning and evening, by day and by night, to our purification and therefore our liberation. In both cases God really gives Himself to us and for us. In both cases He comes into our life."
- Church Dogmatics IV.2, p. 774
(altered from 3rd person singular to 1st person plural)

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Brief History of Christian Forgiveness, Part 2

Anselm had already emphasized that Jesus Christ's death was the ultimate penance; the satisfaction for sin, and Luther sought to restore this to centrality. Reacting to the many systematic abuses of what may or may not have been well-intentioned procedures, Luther rejected penance, indulgences, confessors, and purgatory in favour of personal reception of Christ's "happy exchange" in personal Bible reading and prayer as well as corporate acts of remembrance and preaching.

The idea was that when Christ forgave and asked us to forgive he meant it for all of us, no matter what. Anyone could speak words of forgiveness to anyone. The point was not to have it regulated but to have it proclaimed and received over and over again, so that the power of forgiven-ness was new every morning and the freed life was an ongoing encounter with Jesus.

I assume you know about the Reformation. The Catholic church cleaned up the systematic abuses, by and large, but by then Protestantism had become a force of its own. These Protestants continued to face many of the same tensions surrounding forgiveness and the Christian life, but with Bibles in every hand and a world exploding in something called the Enlightenment, found new-ish ways of addressing them.

Within this Enlightenment, at least one person bears mentioning here. Immanuel Kant was one of a wave of new thinkers who was emphasizing the autonomy of the individual as a rational agent, thus calling into question the idea that anything could be accomplished "vicariously" and certainly discrediting authoritarian systems of penance and absolution. As you might imagine, this fed the fodder for those who, like those 7th century Irish missionaries, made penitence radically personal and applied it with rigid devotion. Groups like the Pietists and the Puritans and (insert the name of the church you probably went to here).

The Enlightenment made way for such modern thinkers as Marx and Freud---who defined all human action in terms of social and psychological dynamics respectively. Since then the social, political, philosophical, psychological and religious theories regarding guilt and forgiveness have abounded. In their wake, revolutionaries (and those otherwise optimistic about the advantages of social tinkering) have turned attention from the need for forgiveness by urging humanity toward the utopian possibilities where, essentially, forgiveness would no longer be necessary.

Of course, the frequent disappointments in this regard have caused modernity's self-assurance to bleed into post-modernity's deconstructionism. Now its a hodge-podge: Some continue forward on the myth of human progress and a good many others are wondering again about the practical wisdom of some sort of forgiveness as a societal and personal necessity.

For the last few decades forgiveness has been front and center in both large-scale, powerful forms such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Desmond Tutu, and in small-scale, trivial forms such as the apology of Michael Richards on David Letterman or the now-common press conference apology-scene where the latest unfaithful politician tries to save some face (i.e., shorten the life-span of the story in the news cycle).

Western Christians to varying degrees have become wrapped up in all of these developments, while continuing (again to varying degrees) to emphasize the importance of forgiveness. In the evangelical protestant church, of course, the same old ancient problems have kept surfacing and resurfacing.

In the face of a lame kind of Christianity where forgiveness was a license to do whatever one wanted, Dietrich Bonhoeffer railed against "cheap grace" and reminded people of the cost of their freedom. Thus, church dramas and musical repetition were born. Dramas from the Ragman to The Passion of the Christ have each in their own way enabled church-goers to pay a sort of emotional penance, restoring their sincerity and resolve to do better next time, gratefully.

In the face of a legalistic, in/out kind of Christianity so prevalent in the modern era, Paul Tillich emphasized forgiveness as the "acceptance" which overcame the alienating powers of sin on persons and society. Churches occupying a come-as-you-are and stay-as-you-like posture have of course become more common than shopping malls, and quite comparable for their feel-good convenience.

Forgiveness has taken many forms, both in the church and out of it, to the extent that one cannot be too sure what is being talked about anymore. Is forgiveness a capitalism-enabling tolerance which allows individuals to operate autonomously and interact at will? Is it a blanket absolution which enables one to live and grow at one's own rate, free from the nagging problems of guilt and fear? Or, conversely, is it a luring promise used like a carrot on a stick to perpetuate the straighten-up-and-fly-right ethos of guilt and fear?

Furthermore, is forgiveness done more for the sake of the forgiver or the forgiven? Is it a personal, private thing or a social dynamic? Is it about avoiding punishment and escaping consequences or is it about a new life that is supposed to be effected? Is it a done-deal we live from of or is it a future event we live toward? Is it merely a ticket out of hell and a ticket to heaven or does it have to do with earth as well?

These questions and more like them have been the subject of many studies (although not as many as they deserve) and will continue to be, both in and out of the church. My own dissertation is hoping to discover what Karl Barth may have had to say about it. I suspect there are some good aftershocks to be felt in this regard from the theological seismic event of his Church Dogmatics. Who knows, maybe in there somewhere is a vision for a neo-Orthodox church that emerges from the rubble of modernity without simply being the tail wagged by the dog of postmodernity? (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

Regardless, there you have it: My interpretation of the history of Christian forgiveness. On one hand maybe kind of discouraging (did you realize something as simple as forgiveness could be such a hornet's nest?). On the other hand, maybe sort of encouraging (after all, there are no new problems under the sun). Either way, I continue to find my attention drawn and my eyes fixed on the narrative that has been playing out in time:

For there at the center of it all moving forward with a life of its own---in spite of many abuses, mistakes, and misconceptions and at the heart of many revitalizations, corrections, and fresh starts--there continues to stand the perpetually startling event of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Brief History of Christian Forgiveness, Part 1

First, there was this man, in whom none could find any wrong, who came forgiving sins. (But only God can forgive sins!) Those who followed him around heard him casting his life and even his own death in terms of the history and hopes of the Jewish people, even taking on all the significance of the Suffering Servant, "crushed for our iniquities." He taught them to forgive as they were forgiven, and even said if they forgave anyone's sins, they were forgiven.

When this man, Jesus, died, all seemed for not. But then they saw him raised, and a new community was born. His subsequent ascension to heaven and gift of the Spirit meant two things. One was that it made that new community pretty vital to the passing on of all that that he had done. The other was that when it came to the freed life of the forgiven this new community was left somewhere between already and not yet.

Questions, of course, were raised: If one's forgiven state did not proceed forward into a freed life, had the forgiveness been effective? How could one be sure? Who could say? Certain practices and habits became ingrained into the community as they proceeded to work this out.

From early on, bishops and presbyters were given authority by the community to discern and deem forgiven. Confession was made publicly, but was directed to the leaders for declaration of God's forgiveness on Christ's behalf. There could be little fudging a system like that, right? Obviously the system didn't forgive, but was meant to facilitate vitality and center the community's life around Jesus' forgiveness.

Over time and in some places more than others, however, this public confession eroded in its effectiveness in that regard. Presbyters differed in the confidence they evoked from the people and people differed in the confidence they evoked in the presbyters and each other. Different ideas arose about what needed to be done about the frequent disconnect between forgiven-ness and the life that was supposed to flow from it.

The Montanists had a solution. They came up with ethically rigorous restrictions on who could and could not be deemed forgiven. Ultimately you had to evidence it before anyone would say you had it. Tertullian started off opposing this and emphasizing the empowerment of the leaders to proclaim Christ's forgiveness as freely given. But as people and presbyters alike turned this more and more into a license to careless living, Tertullian took more and more interest in the Montanist's regulatory impositions.

"Forgiven? Swell! But people still need rules." Concrete actions of penitence were important if one wanted to see Christ's forgiveness play out in a freed life. After all, Jesus did seem to invest the community with a lot of the responsibility in this regard.

Things evolved from there. Callistus, bishop of Rome, was basically granting forgiveness as an open freedom to indulge in wicked behaviour, and boy did Hippolytus ever have words for him.

Then the Christians were being ruthlessly persecuted, and there arose the problem of those who had recanted to avoid death and then regretted it and wanted to be forgiven. Some would have none of it, but Cyprian saw in Jesus' grace and teaching both an impetus to leniency and greater resolve. He played a key part in the development in a process (more reasonable than the Montanists but still pretty strict) of helping people apply the "medicine of atonement" to their lives.

Cyprian differentiated between smaller and greater sins, and since public oral confessions were getting "cheap", came up with different ways one could not only show one's true penitence but also form proper habits that promoted not needing forgiveness in that area again.

Thus, penance was born. Where baptism addressed the need to have a once-for-all act of reception of forgiveness, penance addressed that ongoing need to experience and embrace forgiveness again and again in every day life. Baptism was the gateway to new life and penance would help it along. Later on Gregory the Great quite cleverly called the one baptism of water, and the other the "baptism of tears".

This is the pattern that held sway in medieval times. Various events such as yearly Lent and regular Eucharist helped the community to address their ongoing sin, embrace forgiveness, and proceed in ever-new life together. Various structures such as penance and confession helped them personalize these and find accountability.

These "tools for embracing forgiveness", as I'll call them, evolved in various directions. On one hand, 7th century Irish missionaries emphasized individual application and devotion and outlined a privatized penitential procedure that came to have a certain popularity among the devout. On the other hand, institutional adaptations to the penitential system came along as well. The church was supposed to help people, after all.

So, handbooks for those who received confessions detailed methods for drawing authenticity out of people. Purgatory was conceived of as a stand-in answer for the question of what God might do with those who died without having the chance to have made a last confession. And in a development that would have pretty massive repercussions down the road, a system of indulgences was established.

This started off innocent enough. Facing the fact that few sins were actually private but actually had consequences for community and family life, a system was set up by which people could face payment for various sins that coincided roughly with the effects of their sin. Too often one's sins weaseled into habits and had a felt but largely hidden effect on those around. But having to pay an indulgence would make the ramifications of sin that much more real and obvious. These payments would be an incentive and reminder to not only receive forgiveness, but avoid the need for it in the future. Think of it as a massive community swear-jar.

Thus, church management of indulgences worked alongside penance as measures of exhortation, applying forgiven-ness to the living of the community. By the 13th century, however, indulgences, too, had taken on a life of their own. They were a chief source of church income and well, you know what they say about money and the root of evil.

In the 15th century, along came Martin Luther. We'll start with him in part two . . . .

Friday, October 30, 2009

Karl Barth and True Practical Theology

I used to sit in a Karl Barth reading group in seminary and not infrequently be heard to ask (with some frustration): "But when is Barth going to get around to talking about our part in all of this?" Our professor was pretty patient with us. Emerging us in the text semester after semester he trusted it to reveal to us its true shape. And, well, I'm still reading.

Indeed, as it turns out, one of the things Karl Barth gets knocked around a bit for is what seems to be a lack of practical application to his theology. Not a lot of how-tos. Some would say no "ethics" to speak of, just a whole lot of what God does. My current professor disagrees--not only with this assessment of Barth's focus but with the common either/or between what God does and what we do--and I'm starting to see why, for two reasons.

The first reason is a pretty philosophical one which I won't go into in detail right now. But it is becoming clear to me that Barth's whole theological project can be described from one aspect as one massive challenge to modern notions of freedom and agency, being and knowing. I may have to come back to that another time, but one way to put it would be to say that whereas we've been spoon fed since the Enlightenment on the notion of freedom as freedom from; Barth is defining it in Christian theology as freedom within, and freedom for.

Never mind that the notion of freedom from is illusory. That's an argument for someone else. Barth's point is that if we want to think Christianly, we should get over this idea that there is a huge either/or between God's action and ours. Proper Christian action is precisely that action which is done by God in humans. So when we think Barth is talking just about what God does, well, he is, but as he rolls on with it page after page we ought to see that the whole time he has been talking about what the Church should be doing as well.

The second reason I'm looking to the Church Dogmatics more and more for its practical theology is simply because of the life experience and motivations that seem to have stood behind its writing. In Eberhard Busch's biography of Barth, His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, it becomes pretty clear that a driving impetus for Barth's theological career was his early experience as a pastor working with the people in everyday life, work, politics, family, and so on. He said himself that it was those years that changed his mind and altered the course of his future thought (61).

As a pastor Barth led a congregation through the first World War as well as through the civil tensions of socialism and capitalism among the workers and manufacturers sitting in the pews each week. Though he undoubtedly felt the pressure to pacify and moderate, to find the "radical middle" one might say, Barth would more often than not choose a side, and yet from within that side also prove to be a bit of a thorn for the other side.

For instance, in the worker's struggle against the manufacturers, Barth supported socialism because he thought it right at that time and place, but he did so without letting anyone around him actually believe in it as a system. At one point, in around 1913, Barth looked at Kutter on one side of the aisle and Ragaz on the other and “was prompted to look for a way to overcome their differences. ‘Isn’t it better to strive for the point where Kutter’s ‘no’ and Ragaz’s ‘yes’, . . . come together?” (86). This wasn't about finding a middle road, but holding together two ends of a magnet like live wire.

This just sounds like one of those defining moments to me. Maybe I recognize the impulse in my own restlessness regarding the (often largely self-imposed) pressures of pastoring. Whatever the case, Busch says Barth “now found extremely questionable the ‘religious workshop in which one is forged as a pastor’. Indeed he even occasionally complained, ‘If only one could be something other than a pastor.’ He was especially annoyed at the ‘universal spoonful of tolerance which especially in our local church is proclaimed to be the supreme good’” (86).

One can see all throughout Barth's life traces of this deep-seated desire to avoid spooning up sentimental truisms to keep the "peace". This is a conviction he articulates pretty clearly during the time of his first commentary on the book of Romans, when he realized that too often:

Everything had always already been settled without God. God was always thought to be good enough to put the crowning touch to what men began of their own accord. The fear of the Lord did not stand objectively at the beginning of our wisdom; we always attempted as it were to snatch at his assent in passing. Thus the greater the zeal for God, the greater would be the reluctance to submit to God’s real demands . . . .

From God’s standpoint that is more of a hindrance than a help, since it continues to delude people about the need for the coming of his kingdom. Our ‘movements’ then stand directly in the way of God’s movement; our ‘causes’ hinder his cause, the richness of our ‘life’ hinders the tranquil growth of the divine life in the world . . . The collapse of our cause must demonstrate for once that God’s cause is exclusively his own. That is where we stand today” (99-100).

Anyone recognize the current church crisis in those words? If not, read them again! But I digress. Listen, further, to what Barth said in reflection on the angst he felt at being a preacher:

“These two factors, life and the Bible, have risen before me . . . if these are the source and destination of Christian preaching, who should, who can, be a pastor and preach? . . . Why, I had to ask myself, did those question marks and the exclamation marks, which are the very existence of the pastor, play really no role at all in the theology I knew . . . ?” (90).

Barth had wrestled deeply with practical theology and found both Church theology and Christian practice wanting; basically unrelated. But he also felt that they could not be properly related unless the action of God took precedence over the actions of people. There had to be this asymmetry or else one was not speaking or following God anymore. Thus the tone of his Dogmatics. But let's not forget for a second that they are the Church Dogmatics. Its theology for people who wish to follow the living and active God in the world.

The joke sometimes goes that "practical theology" is an oxymoron, but Barth would say the exact opposite. Impractical abstractions are for others. Christian theology is about God reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ; who is God made present to humankind and humankind properly made present to God. Like Barth said while writing his Romans commentary:

Knowledge of God is not an escape into the safe heights of pure ideas, but an entry into the need of the present world, sharing in its suffering, its activity and its hope. The revelation which has taken place in Christ is not the communication of a formula about the world, the possession of which enables one to be at rest, but the power of God which sets us in motion, the creation of a new cosmos. A divine shoot breaks through its ungodly casing . . . There is work and struggle at every point and for every hour” (100).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Becoming Acquainted with Barth II: Thurneysen

I think you can tell a lot about a person by what he values in a friend, and you probably never know a man until you've seen him with his best friend either. I found something about Karl Barth's description of his close friend Eduard Thurneysen fairly moving:

"All my personal impressions of him can be summed up in the word openness . . . Thurneysen has the rare gift of being able to learn from others and, moreover, to learn from a person just what is worth learning from him. He then brings it alive in his own way. However, he is hardly ready to settle for well-defined positions or trends. If you are looking for his views it is no use expecting them always to be once and for all in one particular place. For all his decisiveness, he is a volatile man, and is always apt to spring surprises over points of detail . . .

[H]e gets on with people in an astonishing way. He can put himself in their place, walk with them and help them by understanding them (though from a more lofty vantage point and in a transfiguring light). He shares their sorrow or their joy. The very evident criticism which he brings to bear on them is almost always a radical, immanent criticism which is constructive by being comforting, helpful and friendly . . .

His study and indeed his view of the church and the world is like Noah's ark: all kinds of animals can enter and leave again, saved for the time being, under the sign of the rainbow which binds heaven and earth together" (From E. Busch, p. 74).

Thursday, October 22, 2009


A couple years ago I commemorated my 32nd birthday by producing a list of the 32 most influential films of my life. The next year I added a 33rd and then also produced a list of my top 33 works of fiction. Figured I'd make this an annual tradition. Its good to look back on things, and I don't mind having an excuse to do some lists for my sidebar. This year my 34th has come and gone but don't think I forgot! Here are this year's additions:

Great Fiction: I wrote about this book not too long ago, and won't say much more about it here except that it managed to be gripping and frightening both without really pressing the drama or the thrills too hard. Somehow by this subtlety, however, McCarthy managed to make a page-turner out of what could have been so cliche. Remarkably, this he did while simultaneously making me often scared to turn the page! But the thing that impressed upon me most from this story came simply from the two main characters--by the end something about their journey had made me want to walk my own more resolutely.

Great Films: Truth is, this could have been on the list of "Films I Take With Me" long ago, but I never quite knew what to do with it. I do hesitate to recommend it, simply because I have a pretty wide readership and I don't want anyone walking into this film unaware: The language is about as brutal as you can imagine, and then some. I have hung out in a lot of locker rooms and don't really bat an eye at "swearing" all that much, but there are some scenes in here that I still found hard to take. But that's kind of the point, I'm afraid.

Magnolia depicts reality. It just does. And also something like hope or redemption. I have rarely been moved so deeply and felt so richly about life, death, and everything. I should say more about it than just talk about the language, but if you want to understand this film's influential quality in my life a bit more, a friend of mine talked about it here recently, and I can't put it much better.

In the next while (like before I turn 35) I hope to post my new list for this year. I've been toying with doing this one for a long time but haven't figured out how I'm going to do it exactly. I want to do the soundtrack to my life. But that's a bit of an undertaking. So it'll be a top 34 albums or artists or something like that. We'll see. I'm sure you are holding your breath.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meston Walk

I previously described one of my walks to school in a couple of poems. I take that route from the top of Sunnybank hill where my boys go to school. But the more direct route is right behind our house, and avoids the hill altogether. It is Meston walk, and I want you to walk it with me today.

And once on the top floor of the library, this is what you see out the window beside the Karl Barth section. In the foreground is the Meston Building (the Chemistry department) and behind that is King's college (the crown tower is the most visible projection). Behind that is Pittodrie Stadium (at center) and behind that the North Sea (yes you can actually see it there).
I'm supposed to get an office in King's College sometime soon, but until then, this is where I'm camping out. I hear the law library has better facilities, however, so I may venture over there and try to blend in. Anyway, just thought I'd share Meston walk with you.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Canada Live!

Without internet or TV at home for going on five weeks now (customer service hasn't made it across the ocean yet), and without the time at school to do a lot of surfing (I shouldn't even be doing this right now), I'm increasingly thankful for a great little invention called the "podcast". I don't know if you have to have an ipod to get this stuff or not, but on itunes you can subscribe to tons of free "podcasts" which is basically like creating your own little radio station. And this is where I go to stay grounded in some of the things that are most important to me:

American football and Canadian music.

By listening to ESPN's PTI, Football Today, and Soccernet podcasts I keep appraised of my sporting interests while walking around campus. Sure I end up ignoring most passers-by, but guess what? They all have headphones in anyway. If you are a sports fan I highly recommend PTI, on TV or in podcast form. What an entertaining show. With the hosts' rapport I daresay it would even be entertaining to a non-sports fan, not to mention a decent lesson in how to fight and stay friends!

But the thing I really wanted to mention in my fleeting moments before hitting the books this morning is the "Canada Live" podcast by CBC Radio. With my subscription to this podcast I now have on my ipod what amounts to five (and counting) free, good quality sounding, fantastic and recent Canadian live albums! The concerts are abridged, and are interspersed with comments from a host and the odd interview, but these are short and sweet and actually quite good. I love it.

So if you are a beginner to the amazing Canadian music scene I don't think you have any excuse for buying what your local radio station is selling you, when you can easily discover what's out there with such tools as this (and CBC radio 3). Sure, there is still stuff on there not to like, but that's the great thing about it: You give a listen, and if it doesn't grab you, you sift it out and download what you want.

Anyway, pictured here is the Great Lake Swimmers (led by front-man and beautiful song-writer Tony Decker). You can hear a recent concert of theirs if you like. As the host said, lately they have been taking Canada, "not by force, but by the fragility of their sound." Great description! They really are worth giving a listen.

The other four concerts I've downloaded in the last few months include Joel Plaskett (I call him a Canadian treasure), Bruce Cockburn (where've I been all you're life?), Hey Rosetta! (not bad, some of you might like them more than I do), and Chad VanGaalen (recent Polaris Prize short-lister). Any of these would be a great place to start, not only if you want to get to know what's up in Canadian music, but if you want a few hours of solid musical enjoyment.

As I walk by Scotland yards, loving it but missing home too, I sure appreciate that at least a few pieces of Americana and Canadiana are only a fingertip away.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Becoming Acquainted with Karl Barth

I'm knee deep in Karl Barth already. My mind is being challenged, and is cautiously noting potential challenges to to be made as well. For now, however, I'm trying to get the lay of the theological landscape, to get to know the man I'll be studying, and to get at least a working knowledge of the German language. Eberhard Busch's biography of Karl Barth has been a vital help with the first two, but I am not sure anything but hard work can help me with the latter.

Here are a few anecdotes and quotes from the earlier part of Barth's life which caused me to simultaneously chuckle and blush:

On Childhood: "I was the oldest child . . . in my family and did not always use my position in the right way: the consequence was that my brothers, in particular, bore a grudge against me all through their lives for having been so bossy then and having made everything the grist for my mill" (p. 11, emphasis mine. My own brothers have always been more gracious to me than begrudging, but that last line really hits the nail on the head when I think of childhood sometimes!)

On Parenting: "Children come under the healthy sway of the commandment 'Honour your father and your mother', but in their turn they also educate us. We are humbled by the perception of our own errors in them, by the observation that a propensity to sin is even in children's hearts and that our strength often threatens to fail in the battle against it. These are other ways in which children are a blessing to us" (12).

On Sunday School: "I had a well-meaning but rather silly Sunday School mistress who thought it proper to give us children a precise description of hell and the eternal torments waiting there for the wicked. Of course this interested us and excited us quite a lot. But none of us there at the time learnt the fear of the Lord and the beginning of wisdom in this way.' At least that was Karl's father's view at the time, since he immediately withdrew Karl from Sunday School and from then on held a children's service for the family every Sunday in his study" (13).

On His Early Theological 'Rebellion': "One of the best remedies against liberal theology and other kinds of bad theology is to take them in bucketsful. On the other hand, all attempts to withhold them by strategem or force only causes people to fall for them even more strongly, with a kind of persecution complex" (44).

On Pastoring: "'My visiting and my instruction are a laughable piece of bungling; I feel like someone trying to blow a trumpet; my cheeks are all puffed out, and yet curiously no sound emerges" (89).

On Frustrating Ministerial Meetings: "Official pastors' meetings . . . always filled 'me with the greatest unrest and anguish . . . When I want to shout something out in the room, I have neither the voice nor the words, and I hang there wriggling like a roofer on his rope.' On one occasion, however, he did in fact 'shout out in the room': . . . He put out a formal motion to the synod that it should abandon its traditional opening service, in order to demonstrate publicly . . . 'that everything . . . is taken a hundred times more seriously than God'" (87).

On Preaching: "I preached today with the clear impression that this cannot get through . . . because it is still far from getting through to me myself. . . . Our sayings . . . all remind me of bridges which are still only half built, staring promisingly, sadly, threateningly, or however one will, into the air. . . . [Thus, in a 1916 sermon on Ezekiel 13] he spoke in prophetic tones of 'the great unrest which is inevitable when God speaks to us', saying that the 'pastor who satisfies the people' is a false prophet" (89, 102, 89-90, emphasis mine!).

On Feeling In Over One's Head: "The young professor often sighed over the 'mountains of material which I haven't mastered!' Or he lamented how 'I have to find my way through the fog like a poor mule, still hampered above all by a lack of academic agility, an inadequate knowledge of Latin and the most appalling memory! . . . The inside of my head is like a cage full of hyaenas before being fed. . . I feel like one of those men at the fair who hit a knob on a box with a hammer in order to send a ring or some such thing high in the air, but it keeps coming down again" (127-128).

Yeah, I know how you feel Barth; I know how you feel.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Walk

A cobblestone street,
slanted downward so slightly,
the last light rain trickling through the brickwork,
sky reflected from below
like an inverted stained glass window--
picture breaking through the cracks,
and me treading darkly glass.

More Walk, More Talk

Headphones on, yet
noisy bus brushes my elbow.
but that much more alive.


Headphones off this time,
hear the foreign birds describe to me the morning,
the car cobblestoning loudly past mosque and chapel,
the people walking briskly and importantly.
As I turn from Khyber Pass
glimpse the North Sea.
And vastness.
Take a breath and go.


No TV. No internet.
So we talk, play games, and read.
Radio comes on to at least hear the game.
Penalty kick on Arsenal.
Living room across the street has a large television visible,
so the boys run to the window.
But they are watching a different game.
Looks like Liverpool.
Change the station, there it is.
Passed the Rangers in Gallic on the way.
Back to the bedtime story, and scrabble,
and a whole new life indeed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Discovering Bruce Cockburn

Over the course of time our musical tastes evolve (I suppose for some they probably don't, but even those who go with Top40 radio their whole lives will evolve along with Top40 radio). I think it is possible to say some music is better than other music, but much of what we have to say has to do with our preferences which change subjectively over time. That's fine.

That said, I've always sort of known that one day I'd get into Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn). He is Canada's musical poet, or so I've understood, and caught glimpses of myself now and then. As the bulk of his career has gone unheard by the masses and was before my time (so to speak) I never knew quite where to dive in with him, and so have only had occasional encounters with him. But if your musical tastes evolve, it seems inevitable that one day the excellence of Cockburn ought to catch up with you.

Maybe it means I'm getting older, and I'm okay with that, but I think the day to explore Bruce Cockburn has finally come. I downloaded a podcast from CBC Radio Live of an Ontario Cockburn concert of a few days ago and can't stop listening to it. It is starkly candid, poetically straightforward, and unlike many one-person acts, makes you forget there is no band.

The line that first grabbed me today was from his second song in the set, Last Night of the World, where he just comes out and says:

I learned as a child
Not to trust in my body
I've carried that burden
Through my life
But there's a day
When we all get to be pried loose.

Not sure why, not even sure I agree with what he may or may not be saying with that last part, but my, what songwriting!

Today feels sort of like the day I finally dipped my toe into Dylan. But it is kind of more special, isn't it, because this one is Canadian, is ours, no? (By the way, Cockburn has been given five, count-em, five, honourary doctorates! Though it seems excessive, I have no problem with that.)

I know I'm late to the party, but hey, Cockburn here I come. Any of you seasoned veterans want to enlighten me on where I start? I have iTunes money for one album out of his 30+. Do I do the greatest hits/live thing or is there a natural starting point in there somewhere?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Excuse My Ignorance

No pictures uploaded yet, nor internet at home, so it may still be a couple weeks until I get caught up on here, but I got a tour of my school yesterday and must make the following correction:

The picture I previously posted of my professor's office door is incorrect. Apparently there are a couple J. Websters on campus, and the door with that label which I took a picture beside does not belong to the man who will be my supervisor. Apparently this is a common rookie/tourist mistake. Ugh, how embarassing. Oh well, I'm over it.

Incidentally, my professor's office is actually right in here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into the Ivory Tower

At left you see All Souls' College--apparently the one research-only university at the University of Oxford--and its "ivory towers". Although the phrase may originally have been used to denote honour, it is now most commonly pejorative; a put-down. In 1911 H. L. Bergson's used it to say that each member of society "must be ever attentive to his social surroundings - he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower."

Wikipedia describes the ivory tower as "a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life . . . . [including] esoteric, over-specialized, or even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension . . . . the implication being that specialists who are so deeply drawn into their scientific fields of study often can't find a [common ground] with laymen outside their 'ivory towers'. Moreover, this problem is often ignored and instead of actively searching for a solution, some scientists simply accept that even educated people can't understand them and live in intellectual isolation."

Well, I love the ivory towers. I think there is a time and place for intellectual isolation. People ought to take a monastic retreat at some point in their lives (be it spiritual or intellectual or both). Some people, as a matter of fact, ought to do it fairly often---for intentional periods and purposes.

I am quite thankful for the time my sinus specialist spent at medical school. I admired the many degrees and certifications on his wall for a good 20 minutes before he walked in the room, said hello, and stuffed metal objects into my head through the nostril. I'm thankful for the time he spent in "intellectual isolation."

Of course, we realize we need specialists. We are glad to have places where people go to think about particular things. In most cases we are largely uninterested in doing it ourselves, and are glad someone is willing to go do it. We'll pay them well when they come out. We'll pay them not to use their big words on us, of course, but we're glad they know their stuff, and are comforted to hear at least a few big words before we cut them off with "give it to me in English doc". We'd rightly say it more often to our auto-mechanic too, if we weren't so disoriented by the pin-ups on the wall, the Aerosmith on the radio, and the menacing invoice printing off loudly from the urine-yellow computer on the counter.

But then there are theologians and philosophers. I'm not sure we know what to do with them anymore. I mean, you can get what sounds like decent theology and philosophy pretty much anywhere you want, it isn't hard to find what you are itching to hear, and you can usually get it quite readily from someone who someone else thought worthy of the title "doctor".

Besides, hasn't everything been thought over enough? What is the relevance of one more doctor? One more professor? One more guy in grey hair holed up in an office writing books that will only be read by other guys in grey hair holed up in their offices? "What's the point of that?" I used to ask myself, and still do, but more often back when I was still denying the part of me that desperately wanted to be that grey-haired guy one day.

Well, there's plenty to say about that I'm sure, but suffice it for now I'll say three things and then give a personal reaction:

1) Even if it was just that, it would be worth it. In the information age and the age of rapid change, perhaps more than ever, we need at least a few people who are out of it enough to be able to stop and think about it half clearly. Even if it is just going over old ideas with a fine-toothed comb, I find comfort in knowing that some people are doing it. And if that's my fate too, well, I'll accept it with honour and dignity and give it all I've got. Even if nothing of value is unearthed, or if something is and is never heard about, it'd still be a worthy vocation.

2) Yes, one should avoid "sheltered and unworldly", but one should also remember that one's study might only be "disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life" precisely because everyday life's practical concerns might not be all there is worth thinking about! As a matter of fact, many of them may upon further thought be seen as totally wrong-headed!

3) Having said both of those things, it also needs to be said that one who is too out of it won't know what to think about, or may even misinterpret the trends (as so many modern Christians do with postmodernism). One has to be with it too. The goal of any sort of "disconnection" from everyday life should be to reconnect; to have an impact, to have something worth saying, or questions worth asking, in context. The accuracy of one's interpretation of one's own time and place, as well as one's application, impact and relevance, will be related to the amount one has "remained attentive to one's social surroundings."

I'll admit that this is one thing I'm nervous about. I'm nervous on two fronts (and I'm not fishing for "go get 'em Jon" comments here, really): 1) That I'll be able to keep up with the technical language and know-how of the specialists I will be studying under and with, and 2) That I'll be able to do that and "keep it real", even find a way to communicate what I'm thinking about, with my family, friends, church, and society.

I'm afraid I might be naive. I do realize that I'm going to give an inordinate amount of my next three years to all-out research, writing, reading groups, and other very nerdy and intellectually isolating things. I realize that this is all gearing up to the production of one long book on one narrow topic which may be read by next to no one. I can take a certain joy in that, actually. But I also intend fully to be a good dad and husband, to enjoy football, music and film, and to every step of the way ask myself what difference it makes and try to talk openly about it. (How soon and in what capacity I get back to blogging again, you'll understand, remains to be seen).

Of course there will be some sacrificial demands on time and attention, as well as labourious days of footnote-scouring which should not become the segue from my four year old's dinner-table story about goldfish.

Then again, maybe it would be worth a try sometimes. Otherwise what hope is there of ever connecting? After all, isn't some of the fault with whatever went wrong with the ivory tower with the people who started chalking up all heady talk to "academic elitism" and "outright condescension" just because some of it is? (I realize that is no reason to make my kids the victim of dictionary games, but you get my point.)

Certainly there will be many many days spent on tedious things that only build to something potentially worthwhile. That's work. That's fine. I enjoy that. But ultimately I want whatever I go and bury my head in at University to be relatable and useful. My prayer, in fact, is that it will be in service to the church and the world (even if my particular contribution only touches a minute corner of it).

There may be no better challenge in this regard than the one that comes from the subject of my studies itself. After all, I am heading off to study God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. By grace I have as my subject the Creator who so loved creation that He gave Himself to it in freedom, that it might love Him in freedom! Thus, contrary to the way wikipedia put it, in this case one might actually hope to be "so deeply drawn into their scientific field of study" that the gaze is moved perpetually from self-loving isolation to self-giving love for the world, along with it being reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.