Saturday, October 30, 2010

Three things that are Awesome

1. Arcade Fire

I heard Arcade Fire before but never really thought anything of it. Big mistake. At least now I have four incredible albums (counting the self-titled EP) to catch up on. My curiosity was triggered when someone called the above "the greatest song of the 21st century" thus far. Reading the lyrics and seeing the energy with which it is played I tend to think this comment not out of line.

Wake Up - Arcade Fire

Something filled up
My heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry

But now that I'm older
My heart's colder
And I can see that it's a lie

Children, wake up
Hold your mistake up
Before they turn the summer into dust

If the children don't grow up
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up
We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms
Turning every good thing to rust

I guess we'll just have to adjust

With my lightning bolts a-glowin'
I can see where I am going to be
When the reaper, he reaches and touches my hand

With my lightning bolts a-glowin'
I can see where I am going
With my lightning bolts a-glowin'
I can see where I am going

You better look out below!

See also these fantastic covers by Paulo Nutini (a beautiful mellowed version), Macy Gray (an energetic soulful version), and some grade 6 kids at a school assembly (a touching, even poignant version).

2. 14 volumes of hard-bound goodness:

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, 14 volumes, $99!
I must say: If you have spent $100 of your own or your church's money on pop ecclesiology church leadership books then you owe this to yourself and to them.

3. Phoenix on a tour bus:

Phoenix makes me happy. Discovering Les Concerts a Emporter (Take Away Shows) on La Blogoteque slightly happier.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exegesis as Hope in God's Words

An excerpt from a recent essay by my doctoral supervisor, Professor John Webster, in the 2010 book Christology and Ethics:

"Part of the discipline of dogmatic and moral theology is coming to terms -- often after some struggle against our own sophistication -- with the fact that [exegesis is a crucial activity]: that we will not get very far unless moral reason is disciplined by the divine self-declaration encountered through the prophets and apostles, and that, as we do so govern moral reason, we are granted illumination. Exegesis -- indeed, the theological enterprise in its entirety, including moral theology, is calling upon God: 'I cry to thee, save me, that I may observe thy testimonies. I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in thy words.' (Ps. 119:146-47). Patiently pursued, as a work in which theological reason is quickened by the Spirit, exegesis is an act of hope in God's words."
(John Webster, "Where Christ Is," Christology and Ethics, 2010, p. 32)

I have had the difficult but enjoyable privilege of doing both hard theological study and exegetical readings of biblical texts in sermon preparation and, while I can hardly imagine one without the other, I am reminded often of the supremacy of the latter and of the living Word that continues to breathe through the biblical text in a way unique to it alone. Attentiveness to the words of Scripture is rarely without its surprises. Theological reading can help notice them and to grapple with their ramifications, but it is no replacement for exegesis itself, which is (I like the way he puts it) an act of hope in God's words. Time and time again I have found that to ring true. The reminder makes me look forward to my next preaching date at the end of November.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hauerwas on the Way of Peace

Researching the contrasts and similarities between Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas on ethics and ecclesiology, I came across the following in Hauerwas' The Peaceable Kingdom (p. 87-90):

“Jesus’ cross, however, is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. . . . Rather the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom come; it is that kingdom come.... [Because of this], we believe that forgiveness and love are alternatives to the coercion the world thinks necessary for existence....[Thus] all life is valued, even the lives of our enemies, because God has valued them....

It is crucial that we understand that such a peaceableness is possible only if we are also a forgiven people. We must remember that our first task is not to forgive, but to learn to be the forgiven.... Only by learning to accept God’s forgiveness as we see it in the life and death of Jesus can we acquire the power that comes from learning to give up that control....

It is true, of course, that in a sense to be a ‘forgiven people’ makes us lose control. To be forgiven means that I must face the fact that my life actually lies in the hands of others. I must learn to trust them as I have learned to trust God. Thus it is not accidental that Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread... to learn to live on a day-to-day basis....

When we exist as a forgiven people we are able to be at peace with our histories, so that now God’s life determines our whole way of being – our character. We no longer need to deny our past, or tell ourselves false stories, as now we can accept what we have been without the knowledge of our sin destroying us....

That we are only able to have a history, a self, through the forgiveness wrought by God means that the resurrection of Jesus is the absolute center of history.... Only if our Lord is a risen Lord, therefore, can we have the confidence and the power to be a community of forgiveness."

At the end of the day I think my comparison between Barth and Hauerwas is going to side with Barth in emphasizing that the ethics of forgiveness is not so much a "confidence" and a "power" as it is a perpetual gift of God perpetually invoked and shared, but the sentiment is the same. Indeed, Hauerwas himself connects forgiveness to the prayer for daily bread and sums the whole thing up as follows:

“For this is no dead Lord we follow but the living God, who having dwelt among us as an individual, is now eternally present to us making possible our living as forgiven agents of God’s new creation.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are You Christian? (Yes, I Believe So)

Based on his reading of Karl Barth's commentary on Romans, Robert E. Willis writes the following:

"Sanctification, then, is real. It is obedience that poses a continuing problem. . . . Are we really obedient? Do we really let the divine disturbance fall upon us, so that our lives are opened for service in love to God and our neighbor? There is no way of answering these questions directly. . . . Man lacks the capacity to tell himself that he is obedient, that his actions are performed in response to the command of God. The only possibility ... [is to act, and to] leave the results, the assessing of those actions, entirely in the hands of God. . . .

[Thus:] If the issue of obedience is not to be decided by direct reference to specific actions and possibilities, then we are forewarned against any attempt to set up orders and structures within history to which the adjective 'Christian' could automatically be attached. This occurs whenever we attempt to speak unambiguously of a 'Christian' world-view, morality, or art; or of a 'Christian' personality, family, party, or newspaper. These serve merely to mark human efforts to establish continuity between the actions of man and the prerogative of God; or rather, they involve a continual ignoring of that prerogative. Barth's treatment of obedience is thus designed, in the first instance, to safeguard the freedom of God."

This of course raises questions about, among other things, Christian ethics and assurance of faith.

In the case of the latter: Can we discern whether we are 'Christians'? Can we have assurance of faith? I think the answer is in the question. Our salvation is a matter of faith. Either Jesus raised from the dead or he didn't. Our salvation rises and falls with that. Am I a Christian? I have no way of proving it. I believe it to be so because I believe Jesus Christ has reconciled all to God.

In the case of the former: Can we speak of what it means to act 'Christianly'? I think later on in his career Barth gets more clear about this, indicating that there are certain frames of reference within which decidedly Christian activity takes place and there is in the Christian community the belief that by invocation of God and hearing of His command in the present there can be confident obedience along certain lines. But even then the confidence is not in oneself but in the grace of God to take any attempt at obedience and sanctify it and make it good.

This is the kind of stuff I've been thinking about for what seems like months on end now. I'd be interested to hear whether it is at all intelligible and, if so, whether it seems to be on to something or not.
(quotations from Robert E. Willis, The Ethics of Karl Barth, p. 56-57)

Friday, October 22, 2010


For my birthday my wife, with the help of my parents, sent me with my two eldest sons to Glasgow to see a Champion's League football match this week. Being a football fan in Canada means you have to skip work in the midweek to watch Champion's League or try not to hear the scores (which isn't hard in Canada I'm afraid) and catch the replays of the games at night. I never imagined I'd get to go to one. The following videos are basically me pinching myself.

The Champion's League Anthem.

Ready for kick off. Glasgow Rangers v. Valencia FC.

One thing I'll never forget is how after Valencia had owned the ball for the first 12 minutes, the Rangers got a break and just missed a scoring opportunity and it brought new meaning to the commentator's cliche that it "brought the place alive". It had been pretty quiet, a tentative start. Rangers playing defense. Then the chance, a near miss, and cheers. And then when the ball was back in play it was as if all 50,000 people woke up at once and there was this spontaneous, electric shock--almost a massive scream--that went up. We were in it! From then on it was songs and drum-beat clapping and opportunities and excitement.

Some game action.


The game ended 1-1, with Edu scoring not only the go-ahead goal, but then an unfortunate own-goal early in the second half. (Incidentally, we had no idea at the time that he'd scored on himself, and didn't start to put two and two together until the way back to the hotel when someone asked us about it.) Regardless, Edu was a delight to watch. He had a brilliant night, cracking one off the post at one point as well. In the end it was a draw that could have been a win, but a good draw against a good team nonetheless. Hopefully it doesn't cost Rangers down the line. A truly memorable night.

As far as my boys go, I do wonder what they'll remember. My five year old was pretty tired at half time, and lay his head on my lap asking if we could go home. An Oreo and Coke revived him though. The craziest thing was that in consequence by the 82nd minute he informed me he had to go to the toilet and so we ran out and missed a crucial couple minutes, listening for the tell-tale cheering from the nearby washroom. I left my seven year old in the "care" of the Glaswegian supporters sitting behind us so he didn't miss a thing. Needless to say it was one of the quickest restroom breaks in the history of parenting! But the gentleman behind us was all smiles on my return, and my eldest hardly seemed to notice I was gone. I'm pretty confident he was having the time of his life.

It is strange, however, to try to imagine going to the game as a youngster without sharing all the emotional back-story to the event. When I would try to get my boys to sing and clap along they just seemed awestruck and dazed (as the videos above show). But I remember quite clearly attending a Vancouver Whitecaps game when I was five, and I have a feeling this one will stick with these boys just as it will me--if for no other reason than that they heard their dad yammering on about it in build up and got to see him go bonkers along with thousands of other people! In the morning my five year old asked me whether I had already told Mom about the game and then proceeded to tell her about Edu's shot off the post. Whether he shares my love for the game or not, that was certainly cool. They were thankful to their Mom for letting them go instead of her, and I am very thankful for this great birthday experience, as I'm sure you can tell!

Speaking of back-story, it was five years ago that my team, Liverpool FC, won the Champion's League over AC Milan in what was one of the most dramatic games in sporting history. My friend Dwayne and I skipped work that afternoon and watched it in a sports bar midday in Winnipeg where they wouldn't even turn the sound on. This (slightly over the top) video of the game perhaps makes up for the lack of "environment" around us that day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

In the Leaves of Kings College at Night

I have thoroughly enjoyed my visits to Cambridge, Oxford, and St. Andrews, and all of them have that University-town feel on a much larger scale than does Aberdeen.

But last night we had the kids down at King's College and today we walked to and from church through Old Aberdeen (as we always do, but today at quite a leisurely pace), and I am reminded that I just love our little campus.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Theodicy Fatigue, Virtue, and Faith

My blog conversation between Barth and the Coen brothers earlier this week spawned a few reactions elsewhere in the blogosphere, including one at Inhabitio Dei that looks at the film as a depiction of Holy Saturday and one at Experimental Theology which analyzes it as an expression of "theodicy fatigue". What I really like about the last one is that it shows how theodicy (the problem of good and evil) is not just a theological problem but a commonly-felt moral and philosophical one. Very well put and worth a read. I'll put an excerpt and my own comment below, but by all means go and give it a good read.

Given the challenge of evil to our "sense making" many attempt to produce a theodicy, a way to show that despite appearances there are links between virtue and happiness. In religion these links are often provided by a God who will, in the end, punish evil and allow virtue to flourish. God, by guaranteeing the links between goodness and flourishing, makes the Cosmos morally coherent and comprehensible. This is the goal of a theodicy; it is an argument that the links between virtue and happiness do exist, even if currently unrealized. One might think of the Enlightenment project as the attempt to have the State (rather than God) guarantee the links between virtue and happiness. That is, according to the Enlightenment if we get a good social contract in place we should be able to create a world where virtuous citizens get rewarded and less virtuous citizens get penalized. . . .

Some history here might be helpful. As Neiman recounts, Europe was profoundly shaken--theologically, existentially, philosophically, and psychologically--in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. This disaster greatly agitated the Enlightenment thinkers, throwing into doubt their optimistic reliance upon reason and civic virtue. . . . No Country asks us to consider the association between virtue and happiness. Specifically, is there an association? Do the good guys win? Do the bad guys get caught? The answer, in both cases, is no. In No Country the association between virtue and happiness is radically decoupled and dislocated. In No Country we see a theodicy fail. . . . [But] according to Kant, for virtue to exist in the world we need a failed theodicy, where the links between virtue and happiness cannot be guaranteed. Virtue, to be virtue, can have no guarantee. In short, virtue can only exist in a world like No Country for Old Men. (Richard Beck)

My comment on his blog might not make sense without reading the whole, but I said "I loved this film and couldn't stop thinking of it when I was reading Barth non-stop this last year. You have here given it a remarkable interpretation which takes it to new depths for me (and I've thought about it a lot). Thanks for this. (I'm thrilled to have indirectly spurred you to write this post, because it is great).

I do want to say that I don't think the Christian theodicy necessarily presents us with a Disney God [where virtue always has a happy ending]. Mind you, it is often taken that way. I guess the promise of a resurrection or after life might serve as a bit of self-interest that promotes virtue for some, but I think for most people this too fails. There is hope and faith, but they don't really guarantee any benefits to oneself in this life, and thus don't take away the fact that one must somehow find the courage to self-give; to be virtuous in this respect.

Besides, one can never quite be sure one has actually been virtuous. Who is to say on judgment day we don't find out we were fighting on the wrong side sometimes? All this to say I don't know that I agree with commenters who have implied Christianity and Disney are alike. But it may be that no one is saying that. I just wanted to think about that a bit.

A question, though: It seemed like a leap at the end to credit Sheriff Bell and Carla Jean as virtuous, as holding out a heroic kind of faith. I see the general point being made, that virtue can only be such in a failed theodicy . . . but it seems that the resources to call something virtuous or right elude us. And I'm not sure what the faith is in. I'm not sure virtue can survive in a total theodicy fail, because a total theodicy fail feels to me like it did for Sheriff Bell: a total fail of virtue and a resignation to chaos.

Maybe I'm missing an important turn. Nonetheless, I really liked this treatment of the film and this insight into the history of theodicy. Thanks."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Taking Sin Seriously by Not Taking it That Seriously

For our systematics seminar next week we've been reading David H. Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. In one section Kelsey illustrates the problems that arise when focus on human decision blurs and overtakes recognition of divine gift. He points out that 20th century Christianity was heavily influenced by anthropologies which focused on the self-decision between good and bad; grace and nature. Since this led to two kinds of despair--either one despaired of making a good decision or one despaired of making a good decision--faith in God became the solution to this despair (Kierkegaard).

However, this is not without its own problems, especially when the content of the faith blurs into hows and whats of coming to faith. The way to the answer becomes a matter of figuring out and feeling the problem. Kelsey explains:

"[S]uch theological focus on human beings' weakness becomes problematic when it serves as the primary, and therefore the theologically determining, conceptual framework within which the anthropological implications of God's relating to humankind are worked out. . . . Perhaps the most forceful expression of theological protest against [this construal] is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's often-quoted remark . . . . [that God]

'becomes the answer to life's problems and the solution of its needs and conflicts. So if anyone has no such difficulties, or if he refuses to go into these things ... he cannot be open to God; or else he must be shown that he is, in fact, deeply involved in such problems, needs, and conflicts, without admitting it or knowing it. If that can be done . . . then this man can now be claimed for God.'
. . . The methodological problem is that when this question becomes the focus and organizing theme of theological anthropology, the content of the anthropology," rather than centering on "God's free, wise and generative love," becomes centered on "human failure, an exclusively intrahuman defect or distortion (sin) that is in need of correction. . . .

The irony is that, methodologically speaking, precisely because sin and salvation are centrally important to the logic of Christian beliefs, an account of the logic of overcoming sin in the move from unfaith to faith cannot be substituted for an account of the place of beliefs about sin and reconciliation in the logic of Christian beliefs without moralizing and moralistic distortions of the concepts under discussion."

In other words, we take sin and evil seriously by not taking them that seriously; by not taking them seriously that way. They don't get to tell us what we are about, or who God is, or what God is ultimately up to. We should realize that we do not even know our need or our sin or our evil until we have seen true God and true humanity in Jesus Christ. Thus it is in gratitude that we turn to Him, and not in guilt. Awareness of guilt takes place, no doubt, and there is danger in ignoring this, but guilt and sin do not take the wheel in either forming the content of what we believe or dominating the picture of what coming to or living in faith looks like.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Barth and Chigurh

Week two of the Karl Barth Blog Conference began today. My (perhaps odd) contribution to the "Barth in Conversation" theme kicks it off by engaging with the Coen brother film and Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men.

"The advertise-
ment said ‘there are no clean
but the film implies there are no
getaways at all."

Feel free to come on by. Push-back and feed-back is not only welcome but invited, including and perhaps even especially from those who may not know Barth but do have opinions about the film or the novel or simply the content of what is said.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Most Influential Books?

I have begun to try to think up my top 35 list for this year: The most influential works of non-fiction that I have read in my life. I'm not sure when I'll get this done, but in the meantime, here (and here) is a recent attempt to name the top five essential theology books of the last 25 years. To be honest I didn't even recognize some of the books these thinkers listed, but I was happy to see Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace and my own doctoral supervisor John Webster's Word and Church among those named. Word and Church is likely going to inform my current research endeavours considerably, and though I will likely part with it at some key points Exclusion and Embrace was the book which instigated it (and still inspires it considerably) in the first place.

What about you? Could you list off five books that have been most influential in forming the way you see the world and try to live in it?