Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Link-worthy linky-links

Best blog title ever? Quite possibly.

During my recent writer's block (now into its second week) I've decided to get link-happy. As if on cue, several of the blogs I follow have outdone themselves. Thus, if you have a few minutes and are interested in any of the things below, I hereby open up portals for you into the realm of Answers to All Life's Questions -- or, at least to things I find compelling.

First of all, for a great take on one aspect of Nietzsche's Parable of the Madman, and an important distinction between the basic atheistic denial of God and an actual construal of what life on earth means without God, see Scatterings. Here's a quote, from the David Hart essay it refers to and aptly expands upon:
[Nietszsche's parable] of the madman who announces God's death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists -- those who merely do not believe -- to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity's heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon . . .

For another instalment addressing the state of Christian discipleship today, particularly as it concerns what tends to be one of its problems, see the stoop. The following slice is a highly relevant Peterson quote that the argument builds toward:
Christians today are conspicuous for going along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential -- whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers -- hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow.

For a quality excerpt from TF Torrance's Space, Time and Incarnation and "Barthian" reflections on the issue of how the infinite might dwell in the finite, see Via Crucis. Rather than a quote, here's my own little teaser. (Try to imagine each line coming at you as stark white text on a black screen, with dramatic film-trailer music playing over top):
Common conceptions of God are that God has to be immutable (steady, unchanging) and impassible (unaffected by the temporal, or immune to suffering). Fair enough. But is God bound to these? What if our binding God to these abstract concepts hinders us from seeing important aspects of God as Christ reveals Him? What if what we learn from Jesus is that God is all these things and more, so that notions of mere immutability and mere impassibility might leave us with something other than the omnipotently loving and utterly gracious Christian God?

And finally, if you didn't know this already or notice it in my previous comments, see here what is hitting Scottish shores in September--a shift in the theological world that puts one of its epicentres in quite close proximity to where I sit. (When I was already honoured enough simply to be sitting in this man's office on a regular basis!)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Current Issues in Christianity

It occurs to me that judging from my blog one wouldn't know that there are a number of incredibly significant things that are going on right now in the life of the Church. One of the things that might keep me from commenting on them is that my knowledge of the finer details of (not to mention my opinions on) them are not as fully formed as might be worth "publishing". Nonetheless, I look at them quite curiously, and to varying degrees have my own take on what is going on. So, in no particular order, here are some links and passing remarks regarding current issues in what may (or may not) well be a watershed period in Church history.

The Justification Debate (aka "the new calvinism" vs. "the new perspective"). The major players in this discussion are John Piper and NT Wright. Follow this link to recordings from the recent Wheaton conference on NT Wright's work and listen to the lighthearted but straight-talking Saturday morning lecture with Keven VanHoozer for a decent catch up on the issue. He calls Wright's work part of a "paradigm revolution" and he might be right. I think it is a good thing going on. There needs to be better dialogue and less reactionism though. That goes for me too. I think VanHoozer gets it right at the end of his talk, for sure.

Genesis Controversies. No, not the band. In the last few years a number of professors at Reformed schools in the States have either resigned in the aftermath of or out-right lost their jobs over their openness to theistic evolution. More to the point: it is their intrinsically related readings of Genesis. An underlying issue here is the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, which are important topics for people who believe that the Bible is divinely provided. It tends to matter how we think these human words convey divine truth. I think there are intricate and vital discussions going on here, and no doubt a school has a right to hire and fire according to the ways it wants to approach the issue, but once again, I hope we see genuine listening and loving dialogue. The change in our time is great, and we should take good care, going forward.

Abuse in the Catholic Church and the entrenchments of the current Pope. See the open letter from Catholic theologian Hans Kung to the bishops of his church, printed in the Irish Times. I'm not sure I'm with every thing Kung says in this letter (I'm hesitant about some of the bio-ethics stuff), but with the main thrust of it I am totally on board, and it is guys like this who keep my hope for shared communion alive.

McChurch and iChristian. Yeah, that's my little slam against the consumerism and individualism of the Christianity that gets all the attention and praise nowadays. I'll admit, at times in my life I've disdained traditionalism and at other time, like now, become weary of the trends. Maybe I'm just never going to be happy. That said, a recent Aberdeen University student has been posting excerpts from his Master's thesis on discipleship and his last post explains quite well some of the things I'm concerned about. Or, as an example take this video:


As much as I like Rob Bell (I do), I had to marvel at this Easter sermonette that was making its way around the internet. Pretty solid message, actually. But did any thought go into its use of media at all? The very content of the message is about the embodied nature of hope in Jesus Christ and yet instead of doing the guy-walks-the-streets video like they used to do (and which in this case would have been somewhat poignant) they put together this rock-star photo-shoot flurry of canned graphics and pop music? It all but wrecks the message for me, this carelessness about the medium. But even worse it bothers me that it just becomes one more easy-click for consumerist Christianity competing on the market of inspiration. Check out the Wright quote at the end of that discipleship post to see what I think about that.

Now, lest I sound all negative, I must say that I think this is a rather exciting time in Christianity (not to mention a crazy time to try to be a professional theologian). I also must remind myself that between all the headlines there are hundreds and thousands of people hidden away in the churches of the world who are confessing their sins and mistakes, confessing that Jesus is God and the world has hope, and humbly aiming to live and love and learn in community. Let them engage with this stuff and speak the truth in love. Let me be counted among them. And, as Ravi Zacharias says, let my people think!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Christ's Forgiveness: Bound or Loosed?

In an upcoming paper I'll present to my peers I will give both a broad encapsulation of my dissertation topic and a detailed analysis of one of the exegetical moves Karl Barth makes in the late stages of his Doctrine of Reconciliation. There he takes as a unifying factor in the active life of the Christian community the notoriously difficult "binding and loosing" passages of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Interesting passages to me on many levels. In my finite preaching career I've already preached on them at least three times.

Whereas in history these verses have been interpreted to sanction everything from papal authority to church discipline regiments to the authority of the individual in biblical interpretation, Barth makes an interesting (and debatable) move with them by reading them in light of John 20:23---which essentially (not to mention provocatively) translates:

"If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not."

He then interprets binding and loosing not as two contextually discerned potentially feasible alternatives but as one negative, Pharisaical, option (binding) and another positive, truly Christian, option (loosing). Though his exegesis here has been flagged as suspect, as I have begun tackling it this week I have not found Barth's interpretive move entirely as incredible or unwarranted as I expected. Though I think his overall theological argument stands canonical scrutiny, I thought I'd find his use of these particular texts exegetically untenable. Good sermon, wrong text---that sort of thing.

This may still prove to be my conclusion. Nonetheless, as I searched other literature today I found that Barth's take on these verses is not quite as unique as I thought. In HR Mackintosh's 1927 study of The Christian Experience of Forgiveness I found not only a similar view of the above verses but a compelling account of the sort of conclusions I could see myself coming to in the outworking of my own Barthian project. Referring to John 20:23, Mackintosh writes:

Conceivably this is a late allusion to what came to be known as ‘the power of the keys’, a notion which afterwards blossomed or faded into the belief that the Church as an hierarchical institution has authority to admit to or exclude from the benefits of salvation, in this life and the next.

And to that as it stands grave objections, presumably, could be raised.

But is there no truth behind, to which experience bears witness? If a Christian has fallen into scandalous sin, does it not in fact, to an extent we dare not limit or define, depend on the attitude held towards him by his fellow-believers, that is by the Church, whether the realised peace of reconciliation with God will ever again be his? If in judgment they are merciless, if they draw away their skirts from the pollution of his touch, how can he again open his heart spontaneously to the compassion of the Father?

If he finds none here who can give and receive freely the blessed experience of reconciliation, with its incalculable power to neutralise and transcend the past, will he soon believe that the Lord of heaven and earth can pardon and restore the soul? Or is it not only too likely that the pitilessness of man will hide the pity of God?

Even if under these harsh conditions he should attain to something like faith in Divine absolution, it is all but certain that contact with men who can only be softened and appeased by a variety of penances and satisfactions (though they may not be called so) will also infect his thought of God, and of the terms on which He too will grant peace.

On the other hand, it is difficult to assign limits to the renewing tenderness and power with which the Father’s absolving love may flow into his heart, if his fellows have frankly forgiven him and taken him into confidence again. Thus, from a new angle, we may see how the Church has much—all but everything—to do with what the forgiveness of sins may mean for the guilty.

Or again, it is agreed by all that a vital condition of receiving Divine pardon is the lowly heart. . . . But lowliness is not relative to God merely. It is an attitude bearing on those with whom our life is shared. Now, the experience of receiving God’s pardon involves the consciousness that we form part of a pardoned company; it means that we are content to share and share alike with them, for in the Kingdom of God none can be saved in isolation (283-284, emphases and layout mine).

Friday, April 16, 2010

SST 2010: "Theology and the Arts"

Was in Manchester this week for the 2010 conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, themed "Theology and the Arts". I had a fantastic time (on many levels) with the Aberdeen University "posse". What follows are my random and unrelated reflections.

Theological Art?: Surprisingly, the conference's plenary sessions were heavy on the arts and light on the theology, which I enjoyed a little more than my more systematically inclined colleagues but was still fairly troubled by. Troubled not because I prefer theology to art, but because if your conference is going to be on the two of them working together then you ought to do better than just talk about art that expresses people's responses to God or gives people a "sense of the divine" and assume that you've done justice to the topic as stated. Oh well, it was still very interesting for what it was, and there were plenty of intriguing things said.

Women Theologians Abound!: There were a lot of women there. Maybe even more than half of the attendees were women. This pleasantly surprised me, being so used to being in male-dominated pastoral conferences and theology classes.

Opera: In opera, the music, lyrics and drama are considered one. If you read the text of an opera you aren't going to get it, since sometimes the music will contrast the words to give the true meaning of what is happening. In the opera we heard excerpts from, the text of the finale might have sounded trite, but it was sung (and apparently acted) with melancholy and complexity which made the whole of it a lot more like life than one aspect on its own could have offered alone. I liked that.

Missed Out: I had to miss the paper on the films of Tarkovsky because it was at the same time as my paper. I have since emailed the presenter for a copy. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is one of the all time great films.

Best discussion of the conference theme: Frances Clemson's “’The Zeal of Thine House Hath Eaten Me Up’: Dorothy L. Sayers on God and the Artist”. In it she described what sounds like an awesome Sayers' play and talked about the tension of doing art about God: If it is an end in itself it is idolatry, but at the same time great “damage is done to art when it is manipulated to suit an extrinsic devotional goal.” Sayers is clearly one of the people who has waded this tension beautifully.

Poetry Reading: I normally have trouble following poetry, especially lengthy poetry. I'm never sure how to read it. But hearing Janet Osherow read her own poetry out loud was great. She had such rhythm and built such momentum. Both witty and poignant. My favourite poem expressed her habit of praying even though she didn't really believe in God or prayer. It ended with the line: “Surprising things can happen when you start to pray, maybe angels will call my bluff.” She aptly described to us that "poems are gifts to the attentive."

A Q&A highlight: Someone asked Angus Paddison what John Howard Yoder might say to Tim LaHaye (of Left Behind). The answer given was that Yoder'd probably remind LaHaye that "the church is not itself": It does not stand above the world but always needs reform. Church is not a state but a verb.

Are novelists the new saints? That's what one presenter suggested. We look to them to walk us through life, because they get into the nooks and crannies of life and go where many of our pulpits dare not to go, or fail to go with theological daring or realism. Problem is that there are so few good novelists of this type, and that the world tends to go to its soaps rather than its saints.

Favourite Paper: Richard McLauchlan's “The Language of Silence: Divine Absence as Revelation in Light of the Poetry of R.S. Thomas.” Among many other things, in it he quotes Thomas's "The Absence", which begins: "It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels" and continues, "It is a room I enter from which someone has just gone." It concludes as follows:

"Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?"

Favourite Paper #2: My friend Adam gave a great paper on TF Torrance's doctrine of Scripture, particularly on the Bible as God's use of fallen language as being analogous to His incarnation in fallen human flesh.

Living Trees: Another interesting paper was on poetry about trees which speak of them anthropomorphically as if they had human feelings, treating them as subjects in order to draw out our relatedness within nature. It ended up triggering many thoughts about creation, new creation, and ecology. In it Richard Bauckham noted that though the biblical writers were not as scientifically aware of the reciprocity of people, animals, and plants, but spoke profoundly of our interrelatedness nonetheless---not only in creation but in redemption. Very interesting. It made me think of the verse which says something about the creation longing for the sons of God to be revealed, and CS Lewis's and JRR Tolkien's use of living trees in their stories to bring out just this point. In the case of Narnia, the trees are longing for redemption, and celebrate when the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are allied to Aslan in bringing just that about for the whole of their world.

Oh, and my paper went pretty well. Having now attended a conference on theology and the arts I am more convinced than ever that I need to try to get my master's thesis published---no longer simply because I would consider it a great personal accomplishment, but because I think Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday has a lot to offer this discussion. I have been rejected from two publishers so far, but am inspired to try another round.

All in all, it was a great time with my Aberdeen colleagues and a very enjoyable conference. I hope I can make next year's in York.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Poet and the Lunatics

I have been following up a few footnotes to my paper for next week's Society for the Study of Theology conference in Manchester next week and ended up reading a few pages of a book that gets filed under the heading "I can't believe I haven't read this yet."

Far as I can tell, where we join the story the main character, Gabriel Gale, is being questioned by police for the way he ended a debate: By literally tying his opponent to a tree. In the course of that questioning he asks that they consult the man on the tree to find out if he'd like to press charges. By way of telegram the man responds only with gratitude--for in his view Gabriel has actually saved his life. Now here is some of Gabriel's defence. I've highlighted the quote I was following up in bold, and another quote lower down that I've heard many times before, most recently in a paper on the Lutheran doctrine of the Eucharist.

There is no cure for that nightmare of omnipotence except pain; because that is the thing a man knows he would not tolerate if he could really control it. A man must be in some place from which he would certainly escape if he could, if he is really to realize that all things do not come from within. That is the meaning of that mad parable or mystery play you have seen acted here like an allegory. I doubt whether any of our action is really anything but an allegory. I doubt whether any truth can be told except in a parable. There was a man who saw himself sitting in the sky; and his servants the angels went to and fro in coloured garments of cloud and flame and the pageant of the seasons; but he was over all and his face seemed to fill the heavens. And, God forgive me for blasphemy, but I nailed him to a tree."

He had risen to his feet in a suppressed and very unusual excitement; and his face was pale in the sunlight. For he spoke indeed in parables; and the things of which he was thinking were far away from that garden or even from that tale. There swelled up darkly and mountainously in his memory the slopes of another garden against another storm. The skeleton arch of a ruined abbey stood gaunt against the ghastly light, and beyond the racing river was the low and desolate inn among the reeds; and all that grey landscape was to him one purple patch of Paradise... and of Paradise Lost.

"It is the only way," he kept repeating; "it is the only answer to the heresy of the mystic; which is to fancy that mind is all. It is to break your heart. Thank God for hard stones; thank God for hard facts; thank God for thorns and rocks and deserts and long years. At least I know now that I am not the best or strongest thing in the world. At least I know now that I have not dreamed of everything."

Needless to say, I'll be checking the library for this book on my way home today. At lunch, however, I'll be presenting my SST draft to some of my peers for their critique. We do this to each other every week and I'm supremely grateful to have found people here who want to try to do theology in community. By the way, here's the abstract, which I sent in months ago and will be more or less presenting on Tuesday afternoon:

“Winsome Witness: G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday as Narrative Apologia”

As borne out by the phenomenon of William P. Young’s The Shack, the narrative mode of theology has not only a wide audience and a certain appropriateness to its subject matter, but also a large margin of error and a need to know its proper place. As a guide forward, G.K. Chesterton’s 1907 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare charts a better course. In it a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by a philosopher-poet turned undercover policeman who, perplexed by both the absurdity and wonder of existence, is caught up in a harrowing pursuit of Nature personified, only to get around front and finally see the fleeting face of God. Spurred in part by Chesterton’s dedicatory poem, naming it his tale of “emptied hells”, readers have long noted the story’s wildly autobiographical element and elusive meaning. The novel merits close attention because, as a narrative apologia, it demonstratively avoids overstating its own argument on one hand and spiralling into mere narcissism on the other. Furthermore, as narrative theology, instead of undermining dogmatics or supplanting Scripture, the story serves them both—probing where systematic theology can’t reach without posing as a stand-in for its precision. As such, it is a winsome witness and fine example of the proper relation of theology and the arts.

You can probably see why I was tracking down the above quote.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

This Side of the Church Dogmatics

Last Friday I completed my five month project of reading all 3,000 pages of Karl Barth's fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (including the posthumously published fragments). As a commemoration, and as a way of incorporating my recent endeavours with Barth into the intended echoes of my blog title, I decided to quote a few of the places where the English translation came close to using the phrase "this side of sunday".

Thanks to a search of the digital Barth library, it turns out that though he never used my title exactly the phrase "this side of" does occur 67 times in the entirety of the Dogmatics. Given their nature, it works out well to post some on Easter weekend.

"He [Jesus] breathes on His disciples as the Resurrected and says: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." It is He Himself who does this, but He Himself on the far side and not on this side of that frontier; He Himself as the One who has crossed it, who in His death has fulfilled both His humiliation and His exaltation" (IV/2, 325-6).

"Where on this side of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are there genuine Christian actualisations in which the presence of the future of salvation which took place in the resurrection of Jesus Christ may be unequivocally seen and known and experienced in a way which is even approximately similar to that of the resurrection itself and is not exposed to some measure of haziness and doubt?" (IV/3.1, 322).

"The community is not the kingdom of God, nor will it ever be before the kingdom encounters it, and is revealed to it, in its glory at the end of all history. It prays for the coming of the kingdom, that encountering it in its true and perfect form it may be directly and universally and definitively revealed. But already on this side of the end, even in the form of the community which prays for its coming, the kingdom is really on earth and in time and history. The community would be nothing if it did not come from the kingdom and go towards it; if the kingdom were not present in this transitional movement" (IV/2, 656).

"He [the risen Jesus] encountered them formally (eating and drinking with them) in the same way as He had encountered them before, and as they for their part encountered Him, as living men in the flesh (eating and drinking with Him)--in a real encounter, themselves on the one side, alive but moving forward to death, and He on the other, alive from the dead, alive no more to die, alive eternally even now in time.

We can therefore say quite calmly--for this is the truth of the matter-- that they attested the fact that He made known to them this side of His (and their) death wholly in the light of the other side, and therefore that He made known to them the other side, His (and their) life beyond, wholly in terms of this side, even as spoken in His resurrection from the dead, as the Yes of God to Him (and therefore to them and to all men) concealed first under the No of His (and their) death. As the One who really encountered them in this sense He constituted Himself the basis of their faith and the theme and content of their witness" (IV/1, 352).