Monday, March 29, 2010

Of Films & Fiction - No Country for Old Men

This September the length of my annual tip-of-the-hat lists will hit 35. I'm already prepared to add to two lists---films that have stuck with me and favourite fiction---with but one entry: No Country for Old Men. I'll be writing an article on this story in the fall and it will be pretty clear then what I think about it. So for now I'm just going to post a few quotes.

Novel # 27 - No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

This is a masterfully and thoughtfully written Western thriller. The dialogue and the narrative are swift and simple but drive the reader's heart and mind racing. Gladly, this was one time when seeing the movie did not ruin the novel. In the book you do get more of the Sheriff's reflections, and of Moss's dialogues, and this makes for a very rich read indeed. Here are a few of the lines you don't get in the movie:

[Llewlyn Moss:] There's always somebody knows where you're at. Knows where and why. For the most part.
[Hitchhiker:] Are you talkin about God?
No. I'm talkin about you. . . . .
He looked at her. After a while he said: It's not about knowin where you are. It's about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody's. You don't start over. . . . You might think you can run away and change your name and I don't know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?
. . . . . . . . . . . .

[Carla Jean Moss:] You can change it.
[Anton Chigurh:] I don't think so. Even a nonbeliever might find it useful to model himself after God. Very useful, in fact.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

[Sheriff Ed Bell:] The man that shot you died in prison.
[Uncle Ellis:] In Angola, yes.
What would you of done if he'd been released?
I don't know. Nothin. There wouldn't be no point to it. There ain't no point to it. Not to any of it.
I'm kindly surprised to hear you say that.
You wear out Ed Tom. All the time you spend tryin to get back what's been took from you there's more goin out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it. . . . I was too young for one war and too old for the next one. But I seen what come out of it. You can be patriotic and still believe that some things cost more than what they're worth. Ask them Gold Star mothers what they paid and what they got for it. You always pay too much. Particularly for promises. There ain't no such thing as a bargain promise.

Film #35 - No Country for Old Men - Joel & Ethan Coen

As far as film-adaptations go, it would be tough to beat what the Coen brothers here managed. The movie and the book are the same kind of awesome in slightly different ways--each perfect according to its medium.

Both begin with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell's by now famous monologue: "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. 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.'"


I'll be writing an article about No Country for Old Men this fall for the fourth annual Karl Barth Blog Conference. The theme is "Barth in Conversation with . . ." and this is what I pitched. I'm thrilled that they went for it. I'm not going to elaborate on it right now, but basically it will be a Barthian response regarding the nature of evil. But, that said, the feedback is going to go both ways.

I haven't read any full-scale reviews of McCarthy's story or the Coen's film adaptation yet, and will do so when writing time comes, but what I just may put more stock in is the thoughts of my readers. I would really love to have some of your reactions to the book and the film. For those who've read it or seen it: How did it strike you? What did you take away from it, either intellectually or emotionally or both?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Everyone's A Theologian

Everyone is a theologian. The problem, in church as much as out of it, is when we refuse to admit it. Whether someone wishes to give their theology (or more properly: the God behind that theology) precedence in their life is another matter---but everyone is a theologian.

Denying this is particularly unhelpful for those want to try to talk about (or live for) God with one another. For the sake of making a few points, but not in the interests of stereotyping, I'm thinking of three basic people here (all of which typify my own posture at different times):

The average church-goer (that's me) who doesn't want to get too bogged down in theological concerns or get entangled in questions but opts instead for 'the spiritual life'-- That Christian is doing theology (not only in this decision but also in every spiritual activity thereafter). And, I might add, depending on the aggressiveness and the context of this stance, this church-goer may also be trumping other theologies in the process rather than meeting them under mutual submission to the Word of God with the trust that God will be true though we all may be liars.

Now, there can be all sorts of reasons to not get involved in theological discussions at any given time. My concern isn't that everyone needs to nose into every theological discussion or that action be paralysed by indecisive contemplation. My concern is when we pretend we are not theologians, in order to run with our preferred theology.

The academic church-goer (that's me too) needs to think about this as well. It may be that the academics are doing hard-core theology full time and, as recognized by their churches, may have a certain teaching role for the church as a result. But that doesn't excuse them from considering the theology of the average church-goer and taking it into account. If God is who our Christian theology says God is, there may be some things not learned in the textbooks of time, but in the pews and the prayer meetings.

Everyone's a theologian. But that doesn't mean all theology is academic, nor does it mean that academics are the head of the church. It means that all church-goers should pay special attention to careful theology, and vice-versa, with Jesus Christ at the head of all our faith seeking understanding. Saying everyone's a theologian can not be my thinly veiled attempt to tilt the deck so I can trump every discussion with my latest quote from Schleiermacher.

The atheist or agnostic (and who am I kidding if I don't admit that much of the time that's me too?) is an obvious target of my claim as well. I already talked about all this a bit in my last post. [I'm not trying to pick a fight with my atheist friends here, but am trying to finally articulate something on my own blog that I've been proposing in other conversations for a while now.]

In my comments on the last post I quoted an excerpt from Karl Barth, from his posthumously published fragments of the uncompleted fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics. Therein he makes some points and poses some questions of atheists specifically, but later includes that church-goers are perilously in need of facing these questions as well.

He says that there are some you can talk with and some who make talking to almost impossible. To put it very simply, the ones you have difficulty talking to are the ones who reject all talk of God that is not their own. For Barth that is a real problem not only in the atheist-theist conversation but in the theist-theist conversation.

We are either all confronted by God from without, or we are all just asserting our own ideas. These need not be totally mutually exclusive, and some ideas may prove more sound than others, but none of us simply possesses a knowledge of God. At no point is any of us not in process of doing theology.

Thus, the ones who can talk to one another, says Barth, are those who "confess frankly and freely without any such camouflage" that they have a certain idea of God in mind that they are rejecting (or mulling over, or believing). Furthermore, they will confess that they have certain conceptions of reality that they are running with, which include a certain degree of unproven premises and entail the telling of certain stories about how the world works or doesn't work or ought to work.

As Barth puts it: "With such a one it is possible to agree at least on who or what he is trying to deny [or defend]. Does he have in mind the God of a philosophy or metaphysics? Or the God that he regards as the common coefficient of all the religions known to him? Or the God whom he remembers as a shadowy figure in some Christian church and theology -- perhaps because this has badly proclaimed God to him or he has badly understood it?" (Karl Barth, The Christian Life, p. 290)

It seems to me that if we want to talk about God or live together in relation to that discussion we're going to have to get straight who or what we are talking about or not talking about. We're going to have to do some theology. I'm not saying that to argue that from there on its an open shut case and I win and you don't. I'm just saying we need to confess that everyone's a theologian, and come to grips with how it might be possible to proceed.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Everyone's A Theist

Pretty simple line of thought here:

Everyone is a theist. That doesn't mean everyone places their trust in a divine figure of some kind, but everyone is running with an idea of who or what God would be if God existed, or would have to be if one was to "believe".

The atheist, rejecting God or saying they don't have enough to go on to believe in God, has a certain concept in mind of what God would be. It occurs to me that they are thus always doing some sort of theology.

The agnostic, too, although less decisively, is running with a concept of God and measuring reality against that concept. The honesty about the finitude of our knowing is commendable here, so long as it does not settle into a firm denial of the very possibility of divine self-revelation according to the divine's own terms. At the point of that denial it has done its own theology and become decidedly a(nti)theist.

Then there are the religious. Obviously, the person of religion has a concept of God (or gods, or spirit, or what have you) and is running with that.

Perhaps the closest person to being un-theist, however, is the one who claims to believe in God but is really just placing that name on their own conceptions of reality and their own religio-cultural convictions, principles, and systems. You get this in every religion.

We get this in churches a lot too. We face this tendency in ourselves all the time. Thus, I think we could stand to inherit some of that agnostic hesitancy in face of our self-assuredness and to listen to the atheist objections that might help us see the blind spots in our own ill-formed conceptions.

Of course, there are degrees of zeal and there would be degrees of authenticity about this in each of these groups I've named above, but my basic point is that everyone is a theist of some kind. Again, I'm not saying everyone names a God and puts a faith in a God, but every worldview is coloured in some way by its concept of God. An atheist's worldview can in fact be more influenced by God on a daily basis than a church-goer's, if the former is determinedly defining themselves according to a particular concept of God and the latter is claiming to do so but in reality is not.

What I find so interesting about the theology I've been reading in the last several years is that it insists on putting aside, or at least admitting, its prior concepts of God and then thinking forward from the possibility, or the belief, that whatever anyone might think about God, THERE HE IS IN JERUSALEM IN AD 33. Sure, that can be debated. But good Christian theology, if it is doing Christian theology, doesn't try to win that argument by making Christ jive with every prior notion of God out there. Nor does it assume that this God is un-knowable and settle for mere mystery. If it does that it is just doing the opposite of atheism. It is accepting the un-knowable God idea and deciding to believe it rather than not believe it.

No, Christian theology fears God too much to thrust these concepts carelessly on God, or to set up its idea of God at any one point as an unassailable definition. It understands that this fear of God is not the end of wisdom, but it is necessary to hearing God rather than hearing its preferred humanity in a loud voice (to paraphrase Barth). Believing that Jesus is God, it listens rather than plugging its ears, it thinks, and in faith it seeks understanding.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sound Passing Understanding



Whenever I go to the nearby coastal town of Stonehaven I feel like I've stepped into Sigur Ros's Hvarf Heim video tour of Iceland---which is an awesome feeling.

Slow down sometime and watch this. Or watch this sometime and slow down. I can't believe I've never posted it before. Often when I need to relax and regain perspective I'll google it and watch it. My brother showed this to me once and in a small but significant way I've never been the same.

I don't know the full translation of the icelandic and I think the music actually speaks to me more clearly without knowing what it means. But apparently the last word of the song is "content". That's perfect. To me it fills in what definitions of peace can point to but not explain. I'd love to see a nativity play that used this as the angels' song to the shepherds of Bethlehem.

Monday, March 15, 2010

District 9: Bored Just Blogging About It.

Yes, I saw District 9. Yes, I gave it a 1/10. Yes, I thought it was horrible. Only reason I finished it is because it was possible to translate my desire to get out of this movie into a desire to see the alien escape it as well. I almost gave it a zero, but the image of the space ship managed to subconsciously hearken me back to Lando's cloud-city just enough to be half-pleasing for a moment.

A zero would have put it in an elite group along with one of those Harry Potter movies and The Devil Wears Prada, and made it a contender for my next list of worst movies I've ever seen.

It's funny: I had recently been wondering if I should revamp my whole film review system since I mostly give movies between a 6 and 8 out of 10. It probably works out like that because you can usually tell what you are going to like and only have yourself to blame if you watch a bad movie. I'm reminded tonight that watching a movie you don't like every once in awhile really cleanses the palate.

I don't remember who told me to watch this film. I guess I'll blame Lando. Anyway, if you want to defend this movie, this is your chance. I think you know that with me you're going to have a tough sell, so I don't blame you for not trying!

. . . Besides that, just thought I'd say hello---or "hiya" as is said in Scotland. Not sure what to blog about these days. (Ever get tired of your own voice?) So I've been tinkering instead. Hope you like the new look. Just passed my 400th post this month, so if I'm in a bit of a dry blogging spell in the next while maybe I'll go back and compile a "best of" or something. We'll see.

In the meantime, feel free to check out any of the great music my friends have made. I've spruced up their links in my sidebar.

Thanks for reading! If you haven't seen District 9 yet, don't! : )

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bad Words IV: "A Sense of Community", aka, Corrosive False Peace in the Church

I don't know the person who wrote this, but it is bang on. It is a bit of rant, but makes a good point about what today's franchised church-ianity too often settles for and even advertises, as if community and hospitality are "things we feel rather than things we participate in." Feel free to go read it.

But lest I turn this fourth instalment of "bad words" into a cop out by letting someone else's blog do all the work for me, let me try to explain with an excerpt from an email I just sent this morning. My friend and I were discussing the alarming verses littered throughout the gospels about forgiving and loving others as Christ forgives and loves us. On one hand, if you have a full-bodied idea of what forgiving and loving look like, that seems impossible. On the other hand, if you have a kind of sentimentalized idea of forgiveness and love, that seems too shallow and easy. In my email I was trying to explain that I think Christ is calling us to what Paul would later call the ministry of reconciliation:

"One thing I'm exploring in my dissertation is this idea you mentioned, about "straight up forgiveness". I think that's been a problem in the church, basically because of our generalized and privatized notion of justification. We tend to think that we are called to cover everything in blanket forgiveness and move on. But I don't think this is a biblical conception of forgiveness. Forgiveness is wedded to too much else in the grander scheme of reconciliation.

So it isn't a matter of confrontation being a plan B for when you can't forgive. But it is that you do forgive---and therefore you engage with a person and with the community (as appropriate) toward full reconciliation. That includes naming the sin or the enmity (confrontation and confession), agreeing on it (repentance), and aiming to together be caught up in God's work of healing and witness in the world. This is the opposite of false peace. It can be messy. It won't feel like the community we advertise on our church websites. But it would be communion."

Feel free to stop here if you've read enough, and want to comment or question or think on what I've proposed. But if you want to read a little further, here is Karl Barth's argument along the same lines from The Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3.2. I know I have put some lengthy excerpts on here, but if this grabs you in any way, I do encourage you to read on carefully:

"It [a church's witness] can have the appearance of a true message of Christ, a true preaching of the kingdom of God or true praise of free grace. It can ostensibly be a proclamation of justification by faith alone and a warming reference to the spiritual conversion and moral renovation needed by humanity.

And why should it not proclaim this with genuine emotion and true zeal? In this corrupted form only one thing will be carefully left out and therefore lacking.

The impartation will not be intended nor go forth as an invitation to or demand for a concrete decision of faith and obedience .... In spite of all its profundity and eloquence, at the point where it ought to do this, it will come to a halt and become an inarticulate mumbling of pious words.
There will be talk of inward regeneration by faith, of the struggle for a new awakening by the Spirit of God, of the solemn prospect of a distant "world of Christ," but there will be no demand to grasp the nettle and to make a small beginning of this regeneration and awakening in a specific act of will here and now.

There will be prayer for peace, but prayer committing no one. When the time comes for steps to peace which commit anyone, there will be quick withdrawal into neutrality, into a safe avoidance of the fatal problems and the even more fatal freedom from problems of the existing present, followed by a new and powerful and sincerely meant but blunted and generalised and therefore impotent assurance that Jesus Christ is risen, that He will come again at the last day and put everything right, and that faith in Him is the victory which overcomes the world.

The community which wants to adopt this attitude will never be at a loss for practical reasons in its favour. . . . But would it not be better if, when at what is perhaps a critical moment for the world and therefore for itself the community finds itself in the disturbing position of not knowing what to say or what not to say, or of being divided on the point, it should at least refrain from regarding itself as excused or even justified for these reasons? . . .

[O]ught not such an attitude to give it a very definitely disturbed or bad conscience which will not allow it to persist in its neutrality but will impel it rather to become a new and perhaps more attentive hearer of the voice of the Good Shepherd? It is this disturbed conscience, however, which it does not seem to have so long as it can find such good reasons for its neutrality, its empty generality, and the consequent blunting of its word, of its supposed attestation of the Word of Jesus Christ" (pp. 813-815).

I think this is really well put. Rather devastating, actually. If Barth is right, we are back on our knees before the grace of God, even if we do stand in joy and walk again in the over-abundance of that very same grace.

This is not a church-bash. Please don't take any of my posts in this series that way. If anything, it is hidden people of the church (and certainly not our blandly tolerant society) that have taught me to strive to deeper understand and articulate what is true community. You've likely met them. They are generally the people who didn't leave the church when they got burned but stuck it out and found the grace in the gravel. They don't have blogs and they don't advertise themselves. They just are. They are the people who continue to go to church despite the shallow promise of a "sense of community" and actually live in the substance of communion so becoming an outpost of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Jesus, I'd love to be counted among them.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Things to Look Forward To

The World Cup begins in South Africa in just over 90 days. Last night some Scots asked me who I would be cheering for and I said maybe England, "since I'm here." I was quickly rebuffed: "You're not in England," and was reminded that Scots pulling for England is like Canadians cheering for the U.S.---not completely unheard of, but almost! My favourite player is Spanish, so I may cheer for them, or maybe Cote d'Ivoire or South Korea. Mostly I am looking forward to the football.

Before then, however, there is a lot going on. We've got some family visiting in a few weeks, so we're thinking about a train ride into the Highlands (Loch Ness?) or down the North Sea coast (St Andrews?). After that things really start heating up academically:

April 12 -13: The UK's Society for the Study of Theology annual conference is at the University of Manchester.

I've been accepted to present a paper on the conference's main theme, "Theology and the Arts"---so I'll be brushing off the old Master's Thesis and presenting something subtitled"The Narrative Theology of GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday."


May 12-13: The Systematic Theology department of the Aberdeen University School of Divinity has an internal study conference at Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin, Scotland.

I'll probably give a draft-portion of my dissertation a dry run at this conference, maybe on the relation of forgiving to self-giving in the agape section of Church Dogmatics IV/2. But don't hold me to that.

July 1-3: Our school is hosting a theology conference entitled: "Nil Illegitimi Carborundum: Theology, the Church, and Controversy." Pretty interesting theme (not to mention the title), and a great line-up of presenters.

By then I hope to have the culminating paper of my first year of studies completed. The working title is "Forgiveness Within the Community in Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation." It is basically a preview of my larger project which explores the ecclesiology implicit in that final volume of Barth's weighty theological contribution. On the basis of this paper the school will make their part of the decision regarding my continuance with the PhD (my part is to check the couch cushions for some money)!

If that all goes well---the World Cup fun will be all the sweeter.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Barth on Theology: A Joyful Science

I've been thinking a lot about how my goal should be to have a positive, constructive theology. I think critical thinking is important. I think that there are many things that require deconstructing in the light of better ways of thinking. Some (but hopefully not most) of what I talk about on this blog falls into this category. This is important. But cynicism is not good, as another blog has recently reminded us.

I do not want to come across as cynical on this blog or in my future as a theologian--even though there is much of a critical nature which requires saying, and even though in my present stage I am still working through many criticisms toward a more positive and constructive description of Christianity. I will never come to a finalized version, of course, but I do want to be able to articulate it in a way that is not merely reactionary.

In light of this, I post for you a fairly lengthy excerpt from Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation about the task of theology. I've already reduced this excerpt considerably, but kept a lot in here for the sake of those of my theological companions who will want to read the finer details. However, I've put in bold some of the stand-out lines relating to what I've said above. Oh, and by the way, when Barth says "community", he means the church.

"The community cannot dispense with theology, more especially in relation to the witness of its word, but on a broader view in relation to the whole of its ministry in every form. In theology the community gives a critical account, both to itself and to the world which listens with it, of the appropriateness or otherwise of its praise of God, its preaching, its instruction, its evangelistic and missionary work, but also of the activity which cannot be separated from these things, and therefore of its witness in the full and comprehensive sense and in relation to its origin, theme and content. In the ministry of theology the community tests its whole action by the standard of its commission, and finally in the light of the Word of the Lord who gave it....

None of these four elements [biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology] may be omitted, nor should any fail to be brought into connexion with the other three, if theology is to be at every point critical scholarship in the context of the ministry of the community, and therefore the fulfilment of the self-criticism which is so bitterly necessary in every age and place. Theology as a whole and in all its disciplines is a threatened and dangerous undertaking, since it is menaced by every kind of human pride. Can we and should we really attempt it, is a question which may well be asked, and which is in fact asked in many Christian circles....

Indeed, its only purpose is to make itself superfluous. But since the rest of Christian ministry is also a human undertaking and therefore in need of criticism and correction, it differs from foreign missionary work in the fact that it can become wholly superfluous only in the [light of glory]. Meanwhile it has necessarily to be pursued, though on account of its vulnerability with the greatest prudence and caution.

It is sound and healthy when in all its four elements it keeps its eye fixed on its problem and theme, and brings these to light. It is unhealthy and more dangerous than useful when it falls victim to human pride and loses sight of its problem and theme, when in different ways it posits itself absolutely in the sense of Greek investigation of God and things divine, and when there is a consequent disintegration of its four elements into a relation of mutual indifference or concealed or open hostility.

Biblical and exegetical theology can become a field of wild chasing and charging when it bows to the idol of a supposedly normative historicism and when therefore, without regard to the positively significant yet also warning experiences of ecclesiastical and dogmatic history, or to its coresponsibility in the work of systematic theology (in which it may perhaps make a dilettante incursion), or to the fact that ultimately theology in the form of practical theology must aim to give meaningful directions to the ministry of the community in the world, it claims autonomy as a kind of Vatican within the whole.

Similarly ecclesiastical and dogmatic history, if it does not take up the question of the meaning and telos of this history, may well cut itself off and become for both systematic and practical theology no more than an unimportant list of strange facts or of arbitrarily undertaken constructions which seek to pass for facts.

Similarly, and most of all, systematic theology, if it isolates itself from the biblical witness and its history in the community, or if it thinks it should master them and thus does violence to them, will seek and find in them only a little material for the different stones of its arbitrarily conceived and unfounded system of thought, from which practical theology will certainly not be able to gather any binding directions.

Finally, practical theology itself will seriously degenerate if it becomes only a working doctrine which is orientated by every conceivable practical consideration but not by Scripture, history and dogma, and which is therefore theologically empty. These are the many sins of which one might well be guilty in theology.

In the light of what we have already said, it is surely clear that before the end of all things there is no age whose work cannot be taken up again and continued and improved. Together with the whole ministry of the community, the critical scholarship of theology itself stands in constant need of criticism, correction and reform.... Always there must be serious questioning, analysis, argumentation, construction, discussion and therefore directly or indirectly, and preferably only indirectly, polemics. From time to time, though not all the time, a little of the notorious [theological madness] is thus in place.

This does not alter the fact, however, that in itself and as such theology is supremely positive and peaceable, that it fosters peace, and that it is thus to be pursued soberly, good-humouredly, without any nervous excitement, and particularly without too much petty, self-opinionated bickering.... It is to be noted further that when it is conceived and executed correctly and resolutely, yet also freely and modestly, theology is a singularly beautiful and joyful science..., so that it is only willingly and cheerfully or not at all that we can be theologians.

Two points may be made in conclusion. The first is that in solidarity with the community theology in all its movements must always have in view the surrounding world and its thought and aspiration, its action and inaction, not to draw from it its standards, and certainly not to parley and compromise with it, but in order to maintain a constant awareness of whom and what it speaks when it speaks of man, and also in order that it may bring the [faith] before those who happen to come to its notice in its inner consistency as the intellectus fidei, thus making its own contribution to the presentation of the likeness of the kingdom of God.

Since it cannot do more than this, it will spare both the world and itself the pain of a specific apologetic, the more so in view of the fact that good dogmatics is always the best and basically the only possible apologetics. Those who are without or partly without hear theologians best when these do not speak so ardently to them but pursue their own way before their eyes and ears. Correctly conceived and executed, theology will present itself even to the community and its members in such a way that it cannot fail to be noticed. For it will not be an alchemy remote from life, but [our task being done].

All indolent talk of non-theological laymen will thus be quietly refuted. For if theology understands and regards itself as an integrating element in the ministry of the community, the conclusion is natural enough that every Christian is responsible for it and has indeed to think of himself as a theologian."

- Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 879-882 (all emphases mine)