Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Two-Cent Review: "A Year of Biblical Womanhood" by Rachel Held Evans

For the first while I was thrown off by some of the negative reviews; as much as the book might leave one asking for more in the way of hermeneutics, these reviews seem to kind of miss the point. After a while I settled in and read it as an autobiographical exploration of cultural/biblical stereotypes/archetypes in light of tensions felt in life and in the Bible. As such it is a good read.

Some of the chapters are more whimsically evocative, others are downright profound. The biblical vignettes are all fantastic. My favourite part. 

What was rather refreshing was that she genuinely aims to glean something from each exercise, and this makes it illuminating even when the archetype under investigation isn't necessarily taken up wholesale. It was cool when the church ladies showed up to save her from her sewing. It would have been interesting if more of the explorations involved people from her own local church. My guess is that right under our noses we've all got fruitful cross-cultural, inter-generational investigations we could undergo. The book is a good prompt in that direction, and it takes us to some places many will be less likely (or able) to go, such as a Benedictine monastery, a Quaker church, Bolivia, and an Amish community.

I'm not sure everyday mothers will resonate with as much of the book as others (the robot-baby chapter is pretty light-weight, and the quiver-full mothers are of another kind altogether), but there is still plenty here for men and women alike to think about. (And showing us a womanhood that is not all about motherhood was part of the point). 

Mostly this book opens doors and windows. Some will find that frustrating, others refreshing, some maybe both--but it is enjoyable and enlightening.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"A familiar cloud of inertia and distrust"

Atleo writes Harper, Duncan on First Nations 'frustration'
Assembly of First Nations chief says federal agenda has 'potential for harmful impacts' 

"The scaffold Prime Minister Stephen Harper erected in January to help boost the independence and prosperity of Canada's First Nations is being corroded by inaction, and risks collapsing in a familiar cloud of inertia and distrust, newly obtained correspondence suggests..."

Read the rest of the CBC news article here.

I do not know enough of the back-room details to say where exactly this particular political process is breaking down. But I do want to recommend reading this article, and I want to point out the recognizable pattern which, historically and sociologically, we should be keen to question. This is a still-unreconciled but oft-quieted part of our Canadian social fabric.
"We have been patient and reserved judgment. Neither that patience nor that demonstrated goodwill is infinite," says Atleo.
"They don't really know what they're looking for or asking for," [responded] the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
And with that, the cycle goes on. The historically oppressed/repressed minority seeking discourse must do all the work to be heard. If it is too patient, reasonable and open-ended it goes unheard. Or, if it is heard, it is filtered through majority lenses and easily misheard. But, if it is clear and assertive, exposes too much frustration and/or comes off as anything close to demanding it will most likely provide fodder for further mishearing and strife.

Not to pass judgment on this particular situation, but it is a pattern we need to watch for and change.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Saw this Roman Polanski movie called Carnage on Netflix the other night and it caught me by surprise. It was very very good. In the genre of films with a small cast almost entirely set in one room I can think of a few greats, and this is now one of them.

There is a great effort at something like reconciliation and justice in this film, but it collides with what one character calls belief in a 'god of carnage'. The difficulty of such efforts is palpable, and it is very interesting how it plays out, especially for those who actually claim belief in a Reconciling God (and maybe don't put in quite as much of an effort).

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Head's Up

Over at his newish blog, Exploring History, Faith and Academic Life, Dr. Kyle Jantzen of Ambrose University College gives an engaging account of his journey toward life as a history professor.

I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Chris Hedges: Empires of Illusion

There are some great lines in Chris Hedges' Empires of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle:

For starters, at one point we have Chris Hebdon calling the atmosphere at a live sporting event "neo-Pavlovian crowd training." Ha! So true.

At another point we have Hedges listening to the jargon of academia and calling it a "retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves." Sad.

Again, upon the observation of what passes for "mulitculturalism" on a prominent university campus, Hedges comes to describe it as "segmenting the powerful sea of students into diverse but disarmed droplets." Hmm.

And then there's this litany against Las Vegas:
"It is, in Marc Cooper's memorable phrase, The Last Honest Place in America. Las Vegas strips away the thin moral pretension and hypocrisy of consumer society to reveal its essence. The commodification of human beings, the heart of the consumer society, is garishly celebrated.... A trip to Las Vegas is a visit to a sanitized, cutout version of foreign countries without the intrusion of foreign people, the hassle of unintelligible languages, strange habits, different ideas, or bizarre food.... Las Vegas, unlike the rest of the culture, is brutally honest about its exploitation.... as Neil Postman observed in his 1985 book... [it] is 'a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment' ... a monument to our nation's cult of eternal childishness."

Love the way with words. Only half done the book, but it is an evocative and gripping cultural analysis.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Worth Watching

My friend made this short film. My other friend did the music.


They make me look and listen. I appreciate that about them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Propaganda's "Precious Puritans"

I won't pretend to be on the cutting edge of the 'Christian music' scene, but on a number of levels this new song by Propaganda is quite something. As is the backing it gets here, here, and here.


 Feel free to discuss. For recent reflections on this theme see here. Purchase his album here.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Giver is Given Up: Jesus' Death in Matthew (part 2)

A Cacophony of Conspirators (continued from part one)

From Matthew’s gospel the message resounds: Enmity is the human predicament, and Jesus takes it on in full. Though a willing participant, at the most excruciating moment Jesus reveals the depths of his suffering, crying from the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (27:46, cf. Mark 15:34). Only one can remain faithful to God in the midst of all of this and it is he. By his self-giving love and faithfulness he is human the way humans were meant to be human. Only the resurrection will fully reveal the extent to which he is divine. For now, even he will feel forsaken by the Father. Though their communion is severed for a time, Jesus remains in holy submission to his Father in heaven , and both of them remain in a posture of self-giving love at the cross.

With the careful attention that he has paid to Judas, the conspiracy of the Jewish leaders, the turmoil of Pilate, and the failure of Jesus’ closest friends, it should come as no surprise that Matthew is the only gospel-writer to record what Morna Hooker has called the “climax of the rejection of Jesus by his own people.” In 27:25 they cry: “His blood be on us and on our children!” As the story unfolds, in this statement the readers is notified that Jesus’ innocence of what they are charging him flips the curse on the heads of the accusers rather than the accused. Yet it is in this handing over of Jesus to death that the irony of the situation reveals itself. This same blood has been poured out for the forgiveness of sins. As Morna Hooker notes:
Matthew’s is the only account of the Last Supper to make reference to the idea of forgiveness. One interesting fact is that the phrase ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ is used by Mark and Luke (but not by Matthew!) of John’s baptism of repentance: did Matthew deliberately transfer it from the baptism of John to the death of Jesus? Whatever the explanation, we have here one of the rare statements in the gospels that attempts to explain what the death of Jesus achieved (Not Ashamed of the Gospel, 18).
While the blood of Jesus on his betrayers entails a damning indictment, it simultaneously and paradoxically provides the way of salvation.

Παραδιδοµι: Jesus is Handed Over

For Matthew, the people’s rejection of Jesus is both their rebellion against God and also, paradoxically, their cooperation with Him. The Jesus who is handed over to death is the Jesus who was first handed to humanity by the Father, and who has willingly submitted to that handing over himself. The choice of words here is intentional. Matthew himself insists on using it. The word παραδιδοµι, often translated in terms of betrayal, handing over, or delivering up, is used 119 times in the New Testament, 31 of which are in Matthew. This is in comparison to 52 times in the other three gospels combined (the closest being Mark’s 20 occurrences). Παραδιδοµι is used in Matthew’s passion narrative (15x in chs. 26-27) as often as in the entire gospel of John. This is a theme in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ death worth investigating.

Many times that Matthew uses this word it carries a definite sense of foreboding. It appears in two of Jesus’ three passion predictions (παραδιδοσθαι, 17:22-23, cf. Mark 9:31,20, Luke 9:44; παραδοθησεται and παραδωσουσιν in 20:17-19; cf. Mark 10:32-34, Luke 18:31-34), and it shows up in Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples where Matthew leaves nothing to mystery and names Judas as the one “who betrayed” Jesus (παραδουσ, 10:4; cf. Mark 3:19, Luke 6:16). Jesus seems to know what is coming, telling his disciples what awaits: The Son of Man will be “delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him”. His commission includes a warning about what will be the fate of those who follow him. Not only councils, synagogues, governors and kings but also brother, father, and child will “deliver you up” to flogging, hatred, and death (παραδωσουσιν, παραδωσιν, παραδωσει, 10:17-21; cf. Mark 13:9-13, Luke 21:11-12). This is a far cry from the common evangelical notion that Jesus died so we do not have to.

The first time this word is used in Matthew is in the context of a passage about reconciling quickly lest an accuser “hand you over to the judge” (παραδω, 5:25, cf. Luke 12:58). The last time is when Jesus is before Pilate and is “delivered” to crucifixion (παρεδωκεν, 27:26, cf. Mark 15:15, Luke 23:25, John 19:16). In between, Matthew has the unique parable of the unforgiving servant, whose master “delivered” him to the jailers out of anger for his failure to forgive a fellow servant (παρεδωκεν, 18:34). It is a startling fact that although it is the Father’s will to hand Jesus over to death for the sake of others, those who do not follow his merciful lead will be handed over to death as well, except with very little hope of receiving the everlasting benefit of Jesus’ ransom (18:23-35, cf. 20:28).

Matthew persistently alerts his readers to this. At the outset of the passion narrative he has Jesus tell his disciples that he is about to be “delivered up” (παραδιδοται, 26:2), and from there Judas approaches the Jewish leaders with the idea is that he will “deliver” Jesus to them (παραδοσο and παραδω, 26:15-16, cf. Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:4-6). Then comes the dramatic scene at supper when Jesus suggests each of his disciples to be a potential betrayer (παραδωσει, 26:21-23, cf. Mark 14:18-19, Luke 22:21-23, John 13:21-25). In Matthew, they ask: “It is not I, is it, Lord?” (26:22). Donald Senior describes the narrative strategy:
Matthew designs this scene so that it mounts in tension until the confrontation between Jesus and Judas .... The passage is calculated to draw the Christian reader into the story to ask the same question (The Passion, 62).
Matthew parts from the rest to focus in on this point even more forcefully, reporting that “Judas, who betrayed him, said, ‘Is it I, Master?’” (παραδιδουσ, 26:25). Jesus' reply (“You have said so,” 26:25) is Matthew's way of simultaneously telling the story, showing Jesus' full awareness of the situation, and keeping the onus on the betrayer in a way that compels readers to take a hard look inside.

After Jesus is “delivered to Pilate” (παρεδωκαν, 27:2; cf. Mark 15:1), in Matthew’s account the “betrayer” sees that he has “sinned in betraying innocent blood” and repents (παραδιδουσ and παραδουσ, 27:3-4). However, he repents to the Jewish leaders rather than to Jesus, not realizing that if he hangs on longer he will actually get a chance to do the latter. Judas’ short-sighted repentance falls on deaf and helpless ears. Out of envy, they too have “delivered” Jesus up to death (παρεδωκαν, 27:18, cf. Mark 15:10).

Considering the emphases already noted in Matthew’s gospel, παραδιδοµι is certainly an intriguing choice of words. By its prevalence the evangelist may be trying to connect Jesus’ suffering with the LXX of Isaiah 53:6 and 12, or hearkening Jewish readers back to Daniel 7:25, where the saints of the Most High are “handed over” to the final king of the kingdom. In the latter case, this would suggest that Jesus “is reenacting a key stage of the history of God’s people: he must himself undergo his own version of their humiliation.” Either way the connection is not overt; it seems this term is being invested with more significance than it previously carried.

Considering the way the death of Jesus has been presented by Matthew, it would seem that παραδιδοµι has at the same time rightly been translated as “betray” and gravely underestimated as such. Παραδιδοµι is “an intensified form of ‘give’”—only in context does it take on the significance of betrayal. In the case of Judas, the stereotypical understanding of παραδιδοµι suffices, but it veils the larger context of Jesus’ delivery into the hands of his enemies, unto suffering, and even unto death. Judas was not the only one to hand Jesus over: The other disciples played a part, Jesus himself participated in the delivery, and so did God the Father. This is not simply a case of Jesus being tricked and betrayed. As Karl Barth notes:
The freedom of which Jesus was robbed by Judas is clearly only a pale reflection of the divine freedom of which God robbed Him, of which He robbed Himself. . . . It was the divine omnipotence and freedom of which Jesus let Himself be robbed—by means of Judas, yet not by Judas in the first instance, but originally in that He humbled Himself and took the form of a servant and was found in fashion as a man. The real and original handing-over of Jesus is clearly the fact that the Word became flesh (Jn. 1:14). . . . The fact that this takes place is included in the condescension of God, in which God resigns his divine glory to the extent that He conceals it, that He does not assert it, that He even allows its opposite to triumph over Him (Church Dogmatics II/2, 489).
Putting it in Matthean language: This handing-over is “Emmanuel . . . God with us” (1:23).

With Jesus’ participation, if this is a betrayal, then it is an odd one. With the Father’s participation, if this is a conspiracy it is one of cosmic proportions. But the Father is hardly a conspirator and the Son is hardly a helpless victim: This is God giving himself to humanity, and it is accomplished as the Son submits perfectly to the will of the Father under the anointing of the Spirit. This is the self-giving love of the Trinity poured out upon creation, and it is this same life of self-giving love that Jesus wishes to impart to his followers. From “the Lord’s prayer” to the garden of Gethsemane and from the beatitudes to the putting away of the sword at his arrest, this has been a consistent theme of Jesus’ teaching and example in the book of Matthew. What remains for us is to receive it—to be baptized and follow—or not (28:16-20). By rejection we participate negatively; by repentance positively. Either way, we are serving the ends of God.

(to be continued...)

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Giver is Given Up: Jesus' Death in Matthew (Background for a sermon series)

What follows is part of a paper I wrote in seminary; I am posting here for the sake of those who are hearing my sermon series this fall and who might want to dig deeper into some of the themes raised. This post will trail off abruptly at the end, but I intend to return to it and post the rest another time.

Popular renditions of the gospel circulating in the West today tend either to depict Jesus as part of a Christian conspiracy against a noble humanity (e.g. The DaVinci Code, The LastTemptation of Christ) or as the one who suffers physical torments so that we do not have to (e.g. The Passion of the Christ). Matthew would be startled by such depictions: He presents the death of Christ as a human conspiracy against Jesus and his suffering as a result of his willing submission to this rejection.

As such, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ suffering is closer to that of Algot, the hunchbacked church assistant, in Ingmar Bergman’s 1962 film Winter Light. At one point Algot shuffles over to Tomas, a priest in the throes of futility and isolation, and whispers:
The passion of Christ, his suffering . . . wouldn't you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? . . . This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn't have been all that bad. It may sound presumptuous of me - but in my humble way, I've suffered as much physical pain as Jesus. . . . I feel that he was tormented far worse on an other level. . . . Christ had known his disciples for three years. They'd lived together day in and day out - but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man. And he was left alone. That must have been painful. Realizing that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on - that must be excruciatingly painful. But the worse was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross - and hung there in torment - he cried out - “God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. . . . Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.
With this the priest turns a corner, realizing that Jesus has endured the abandonment that he feels and has brought God’s presence there. It has all the import of Matthew’s “God with us” (1:23). 

While he shares many of the same concerns of the other gospel-writers, Matthew is particularly keen on depicting Jesus as the (largely unwelcome) fulfilment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Though Jesus has been sent by God to reign over Israel and to extend that reign over the whole earth, he is rejected, betrayed, and forsaken along the way. In his incarnation the Son of God is handed over to the worst that humanity can offer, only to be raised once the extent of his self-giving love and submission to the Father have taken him through suffering and death. This is the way God is with humanity.

God With Us, Given Up for Dead

Matthew and his readers are not oblivious to the hurt and enmity of the human race and the promise of a Messiah. Into Jesus’ genealogy Matthew alone adds extra details regarding those persons and incidents (such as Judah’s brothers, Tamar, Ruth, Uriah’s wife, and the Babylonian exile) which bring suffering, sin, and betrayal immediately to the minds of knowledgeable readers (Matt 1:2-17, cf. Luke 3:23-28). To this he also adds unique insight into Joseph’s fears regarding societal shame, Herod’s conniving deception of the magi and ensuing slaughter of innocent children, and the narrow exile of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt (1:18-2:12, cf. Luke 2:1-20). This is the devastating and difficult world into which Jesus comes—and yet he is “God with us”; the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 (1:23). 

As the beatitudes are spoken and the drama escalates it becomes most clear from Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ life that before there is to be comfort, inheritance of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven there is to be considerable mourning, meekness, and  persecution (5:3-12, cf. Luke 6:20-23). Suffering and death amount to a stunning fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, but by the end of Matthew it comes as no surprise. All throughout the first 25 chapters the allusions to fulfilled prophecy and forebodings of Jesus’ suffering and death dovetail and mount into a clear collision at the cross. 

By the time readers come to Matthew 27:40, where the taunters tell Jesus to come down from cross if he is “the Son of God,” whatever the notions of Jesus’ mockers, deniers, and betrayers at the time, Matthew’s readers have realized that staying on the cross is exactly what the Son of God does. Matthew does not need a lengthy exposition of Isaiah 53 to spell this out. While he is the most disposed of the evangelists to cite events in Jesus’ life as the fulfilment of prophecy, oddly enough he falls nearly silent in this regard when it comes to the event of Jesus’ death.

After the resurrection it would be the juxtaposition of ancient prophecy with the passion of Jesus that would force people to come to grips with the true nature of their Messiah. Before the resurrection people were subjecting Jesus’ passion predictions and life-posture to their own Messianic expectations rather than recognizing the theological definition clarifying right before their eyes. Continuity with Israel’s history and prophecy existed, but it is Jesus who was drawing the connections and revealing their startling conclusions.

Readers of Matthew are enabled to gather from the actions and enigmatic predictions of Jesus himself that the Messiah is a more meek and persecuted character than may ever have been imagined. Of the gospel-writers Matthew is most intent on accentuating this profound irony, as seen in his presentation of the desertion of Jesus by his followers, the conspiracy against him, and the God-forsakenness he experiences as he is handed over to death.

With Us Without Us: A Messiah Abandoned

From start to finish Matthew seems determined to highlight the extent to which God is with us, even when we are not with him. He gives intimate insight into the agony that Jesus endured for others and the abandonment that he was given in return. In comparison with the other synoptic gospels, the subtleties of word-selection provide the first indications of this emphasis. From the unparalleled introduction of Jesus as Emmanuel/God-with-us in 1:23 what one notices about Matthew is the prevalence of “with” language which accentuates Jesus’ solidarity with people and their increasing lack thereof in return.

In typical Matthean irony, only five verses later readers see that all of Jerusalem is “with Herod” in being “troubled” at the news of Jesus’ arrival (2:3). Later, in the agony of Gethsemane where Luke has the disciples only a “stone’s throw” away from Jesus, Mark and Matthew have him intensely alone. Here Matthew provides “with” language three more times than does Mark, is more clear about Jesus’ desire for support, and offers the least excuses for the disciples falling asleep (26:36-46, cf. Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). In both gospels Jesus asks the disciples to “watch” with him, but the irony is thick when Matthew alone seizes the  opportunity a chapter later to mention that it is soldiers now “keeping watch” over Jesus at the cross (27:36, 54). 

The prevalence of “with” language in Matthew is not easily chalked up to a preference for the word. When he and Luke tell about the disciple’s thrones in the new kingdom, Matthew does not join Luke in having Jesus credit them for continuing “with me in my trials” (Luke 22:28). For Matthew it remains clear that, though they are indeed his followers, the reason they will sit on thrones in the kingdom is ultimately not because of their persistence with Jesus, but because of the mercy of the Son of man (19:28). These are just some of the examples of how Matthew’s word-selection subtly and repeatedly escalates the profoundly ironic drama of the people’s rejection of Jesus and his relentless faithfulness to them in return.

A Cacophony of Conspirators

Turning our attention from Jesus’ friends to his enemies we hear Matthew’s indications of Jesus’ unrequited faithfulness grow into loud rumbles of conspiracy. This gospel highlights the conspiracies against Jesus more intently than any other—continuing to do so even after Jesus’ death (27:62-64). Besides the mention of more notorious players such as Judas, Pilate, and the Roman guards, Matthew names Jesus’ conspirators 62 times to Luke’s 40 and Mark’s 38. This tally may seem an insignificant anomaly until one considers how much each reference serves to heighten the twenty-eight chapter drama of Jesus’ rejection and execution. Within these 62 references there are a plethora of sub-groups named from within the Jewish leadership—their interchangeability indicating that ultimately the people they lead are being implicated as well.

By the end, Pilate and his soldiers are also deeply embroiled in the controversy. In pointing this out, Matthew is more intent than Mark on tying Pilate to his office, hinting that he (like the rich young man in 19:16-24) is so caught up he is in the human systems of power that he has difficulty untangling himself. This even though Pilate has immediate access to the truth, and knows it all too well. In 27:19 Matthew gives unique insight into Pilate’s wife’s dream, and depicts him on the “judgment seat”, indicating his own responsibility for the decision to be made. Ultimately, readers are aware that Pilate is not really deciding Jesus’ fate (for it is God who has allowed this to happen), but his own. 

In each of the synoptic gospels the governor asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews and Jesus allows him the ironic privilege of having testified to the truth himself, replying simply: “You have said so” (συ λεγεισ, 27:11, cf. Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). Matthew uniquely notes the theological ramifications of this reply and is careful to mention two additional times when Jesus answers in such a way and thus allows the testimony of his identity to resound from the tongues of the conspirators themselves. In each case a delicate balance is shown between Jesus’ control over the situation and the conspirator’s own knowledgeable participation. 

Jesus’ foes are indicted not for their ignorance, but for their opposition. That they find it impossible to believe will not be changed by Jesus answering with rhetorical force or logical explanation. Such an answer would not only be out of character for this non-violent, freedom-granting respecter of persons but would actually entail caving to the devil’s temptations to win people by coercion. The Messiah has come in lowly form and will only win the world by going to his death at their hands. They will either believe in this Messiah of meekness and self-sacrifice or they will not. They may assume Jesus is evading their questions, but by his very meekness he is offering his answer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Table

Among other things,
the Table is a place of repentance.
And no one's repentance is complete.
And it is often still searching for words.

Thankfully this grace slips past our words;
finding its way onto our tongues.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Freedom for Fellowship

Here are a couple zingers from Karl Barth that I had to pull from my thesis in an effort to stop repeating myself so much. Today I find them not only relevant but compelling.

‘The old desire for a purely private existence, and therefore for reserve and resistance to both God and neighbour, may and will continually arise again in the Christian…. For all the relapses into his old, private being, [however], it is once and for all established that that cavern is behind him and the open country of fellowship before him.’
Church Dogmatics IV/3.2, 664. 

With the observation that ‘we find it strangely hard to live in real unity of spirit with our fellow Christians,’ Barth probes to the heart of our predilection for false peace by asking, ‘are we not strangely tempted to accept as our real brothers and sisters only a few open and congenial people or a little circle of such?’

The Christian Life, 151-153.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Scenes from a bus

The kid is sleeping. He must be about 12 or 13. We all know this is his stop coming up. Which of us responsible adults will wake him? Here we are. Guess I'll do it. Wait a minute: That other pre-teen standing there with the headphones on steps toward him, leans over, and gently shakes the kid's shoulder and they both get off and go their separate ways. They don't appear to know each other. In fact they are of different ethnicities, perhaps from different worlds. Someone makes a remark about kids missing their stops. But I don't know how they come away from this with that. It was a small event, but I actually feel somehow reassured. The other day when stops were nearly missed by both an elderly lady and a visible minority, none of us noticed but the bus driver.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A History of Gender Role Issues in Canada's C&MA

The Great Debate: Women as Elders
in the Christian Missionary Alliance
 Church in Canada
The following (up to 2000) is based on the research presented in Alexandra Meek Sharman's MA thesis at McMaster University, entitled The Great Debate. With her kind permission I am here summarizing two chapters, but I highly recommend that Canadian C&MAers go and pick up this valuable resource for themselves at lulu or on itunes. It can also be read in McMaster's digital commons. My interest here is neither to aggravate nor to defame the denomination to which I belong, but to promote an informed and historical perspective in advance of upcoming denominational discussions. I have tried not to insert my evaluation of various events, but a few historical footnotes are provided which I think give some relevant context and likely reveal some of my views on this matter to some degree (which I am happy to discuss). I welcome your questions and comments but also ask you to observe respect for this, my family of churches, as we work through one of the more difficult biblical and cultural interpretation issues of today within a widely varied community of churches. 


Albert and Margaret Simpson
1881 - A.B. Simpson, ordained Presbyterian minister, resigns to do evangelistic work in New York. Practical and theological convictions play in to his departure: In the first case, he feels constrained in his fervour to reach as many as possible with the gospel, and in the second case he has differences of opinion with Reformed teaching on baptism and sanctification, as well as healing and eschatology. Before long, an independent congregation grows out of his activities.

1887 - Two societies begin: The Christian Alliance and the Evangelical Missionary Alliance, intended not as churches or denominations but as service arms for co-operating churches. 

1889 - John Salmon, former Methodist pastor, invites Simpson to share his vision in Canada and ends up birthing the "Dominion [i.e., Canadian] Auxiliary Branch of the Christian Alliance." First president is William Howland, and the vice-presidents are John Salmon and Maggie Scott.

John Salmon, later in life
1891 - Salmon has Simpson officiate an ordination service, which causes some to leave the Auxiliary because it is now perceived to be acting as a denomination (which presumably brings them into conflict with their home churches and determines a choice).

In the early years, in both Canada and the U.S., women are involved in all levels of ministry, but are not referred to as church pastors, ordinands, or elders, since the Alliance (soon merged as the Christian and Missionary Alliance) does not self-identify as a denomination, and its branches do not self-identify as organized churches.

1912 - A General Council agrees to a new constitution organizing the congregations/branches that have stabilized and, in this time, begins focussing more intently on foreign missions.

1914-1918 - World War
1918 - Women in Canada may now vote in federal elections

1920s - Edmonton's Beulah Tabernacle the first C&MA Church in the West. J.H. Woodward calls for help spreading the Word in the area and has four assistant circuit-preachers/ministers, one of whom is Muriel Owen. In the meantime, Margaret Connor begins (and preaches to) new congregations in Denzil, Allenbach, Elk and Major, Saskatchewan. In 1923 Woodward sends a summer student, Catherine McCoy, to help Connor begin a congregation in Greenvale, Saskatchewan. When Connor asks the C&MA to provide a man to take over congregations so she can keep planting more, in the process she is made an official C&MA worker. Later she becomes a pastor at Beulah. These women are not mentioned in this video but it gives a sense of the early days of the C&MA in the West.

1922 - Miss A.B. Rose preaches to and pastors a congregation in Lac LaBiche. Raymond Francisco requests that the C&MA send a "really good young man to be a full-time pastor" for him so he can return to school. They send two women: Della Carstead and Grace Johns, from the Canadian Bible Institute.

1928 - The C&MA forms a District in the West and three women are on the District Executive Committee (DEXCOM), including Margaret Connor.

1928 - The Third Annual Conference of the C&MA decides to maintain current practice and not ordain women, but to maintain that they were deaconesses, as was the practice for A.B. Simpson south of the border.

1929 - Myrtle Bradley pastors a congregation in Regina, Saskatchewan, despite it having a chairman, secretary and treasurer who were apparently capable. More stories about the women of the early C&MA can be found in Barbara Howe's Forgotten Voices.

1939-1945 - World War 2
1960s-1980s - Second Wave Feminism

Harry Turner
1960 - Dr. Turner, President of the C&MA, declares it has officially become a church denomination and should begin self-identifying as such. The dilemma now, as Alexandra Meek Sharman puts it, is that "[i]f Simpson's ecclesiology was to be followed women should no longer be able to serve as pastors or 'branch leaders' ... [or] the official role of an Elder"  (40). Women continue to minister in roles available to them, still recognized as deaconesses.

1960s-80s - Significant growth in the Canadian branch of the C&MA, including its school, now called Canadian Bible College, in Regina, Saskatchewan.

1980s - Believing it true to the movement's initial impulses, at least one pastor, Rev. Ross Ingram of Southern Ontario, hires female pastors and places women on the elder's board of his church. When asked to remove women from the board he does not, arguing that his is acting within denominational precedent and is not in contradiction of Scripture's authority.

Dr. Melvin Sylvester
1981 - The C&MA in Canada (hereafter just C&MA) becomes autonomous from the U.S.A. and Dr. Melvin Sylvester is elected its first President.

At this time the organization of local churches is simplified in distinction from regular practice. Until then churches had been run by an Executive Board (of women and men) and given spiritual oversight by an Elders' Board (all men). Now the two were rolled into one, and would operate as the Elders' Board, with less distinction between administration and spiritual leadership. This single Board would by virtue of the change be all male. One of the women affected by this change was Wendy Thomas, on staff at Cedarview Alliance Church in Nepean, Ontario, who at the time of the change was on her church's Executive Board. She did continue to serve in this capacity, however, because the change was in its early stages.  

1982 - At the C&MA's General Assembly (GA), Pastor Royal Hamel raises the question whether women could serve as Elders. The C&MA's Board of Directors (BOD) commissions a report to be considered at the next GA, in 1984.

1984 - At the next GA, the comissioned report leads the BOD to release a statement called "The Basic Scriptural Principles of Women in Ministry" and to put forward four recommendations. Two were passed (regarding licensing women for various ministry functions and one was struck down (which proposed that there be a list or eligible roles written up). The remaining recommendation -- which proposed that women not be eligible for elders' boards, for DEXCOM (the district leadership board), or for the national BOD -- was referred to committee. When the Committee on General Legislation brought it back to the floor the next day it was narrowly defeated and an exegetical paper was requested so a more informed discussion could take place.

(In the debate that took place there were arguments made against putting women in leadership roles which claimed the masculine grammar of eldership texts as support and questioned the hermeneutics and the commitment to the authority of Scripture on the part of the College and Seminary professors who spoke in favour of women's leadership. Correlations with the ordination of homosexuals were drawn, and the Seminary President argued against such parallels. Some apologies regarding rhetoric followed the next day.)

1988 - R. v. Morganthaler deregulates abortion and the United Church ordains homosexuals

1988 - After four years the BOD, with the requested report submitted, presents a statement on women in leadership, which over the course of the debate takes on two new words (indicated in italics) but otherwise is passed as written. In the final report it states "that in the biblical pattern and in the historical practice of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Elders in the church have usually been men. The weight of evidence would imply that normally this pattern should continue." The matter is considered closed, and any further discussion "counterproductive."

Westside Alliance Church met
in this school in the 90s
1988-1992 - Following the GA, Pastor Douglas Schroeder-Tabah reports on the matter in an article in Christian Week, interpreting it to mean that local churches, should they feel so led, could assign women to the Elders' Board. Surprised by this interpretation, Pastor Peter Ralph of Westside Alliance Church writes the National Office for clarification, only to learn from vice-president Gerald Fowler, in consultation with President Mel Sylvester, that Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation is valid. Some time later when the Westside congregation in Regina asks if they can have women as Elders, Pastor Ralph assures them they may do so in "good faith". Along with two other churches they end up doing so during this time.

1992 - The new President of the C&MA, Dr. Arnold Cook, thinks Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation of the prior ruling incorrect, and asks these churches to remove the women from their Elders' Boards. Two comply, but Westside does not, defending its course of action as proper.

1996 - At GA in Regina, a woman named Jean Daly is nominated to the BOD (as this aspect of the 1984 deferral had not been dealt with in the subsequent 1988 statement on the matter). The current BOD chairman, Rev. Keith Taylor of Beulah Alliance, looks for consistency with general practice in lieu of clear polity on the matter. Some debate takes place, and before a vote occurs the nominee in question withdraws her name. The following day Ross Howell offers a general apology to the women of the denomination for some of the things that had been said in the course of an emotional debate.

Dr. Miriam Charter
1998 - The issue as it regard the BOD is raised again, and much healthier debate reportedly ensues. Five motions are presented, and all but one carries. From here on women will be allowed to serve on the BOD and DEXCOM, and will also be able to administer the ordinances. The motion regarding eldership is referred, however, to the next GA. Following the vote to allow women to the BOD (which passed by 60%), Miriam Charter is elected (with 75% of the vote) the first woman to serve on the C&MA's governing board since its early years.

2000 - After having consulted another commissioned paper on the matter, the BOD suggests that a consensus may not be reachable despite long arguments from many angles, and so seeks to make it possible for local churches to have Elders if they so choose. Some debate takes place regarding a motion to see to it that these Boards still have a majority of men, but the constitution is finally amended according to a statement put forward by Paul Little from the Committee on General Legistlation, which said: "The local church may by a 2/3 majority choose to have women on their Board of Elders."

2005 - Jon Coutts is ordained in the C&MA while pastoring Selkirk Alliance Church in Manitoba (this is of no consequence whatsoever).
Personal note: At this time I would have self-identified with the "complementarian" positioned of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood rather than the "egalitarian" position of the Christians for Biblical Equality. However, I was far more familiar with the biblical arguments for the former, and generally equated egalitarianism with perceptions of a power struggle in political culture, the rise of abortion, and the decisions of the United Church.
2008 - A motion brought to the floor of GA by the BOD asks for the manual's "Statement on Women in Ministry" to be rescinded. A motion is made and carried to postpone this discussion indefinitely, reportedly for the reason that a debate would detract from the "Kingdom business" at hand (namely the church planting initiatives that were to be put forward).

2010 - GA is held outside Canada for the first time, in Turkey, and the tabled motion is not brought up again, other than in Round Table discussions. Sometime after this, on the C&MA website -- in place of the Statement which had been the centre of such debate and controversy in and after GA 1988  -- is found the explanation:
"The BOD of the C&MA in Canada has ruled that the Position Statement “The Role of Women in Ministry” is inconsistent with legislation adopted by General Assembly (specifically, the Local Church Constitution). Consequently the Board has directed that the statement be removed from the website until such time as the General Assembly considers it appropriate to engage in a full discussion and debate on the issue."
In response to a recommendation from the GA, the BOD commissions and distributes four papers on the issue of ordaining women and opens an online forum for official workers to dialogue. Interaction is sparse and lacks direction. The 2011 District Conferences host round table discussion of the matter as well, revealing a wide spectrum of opinion and a good deal of variance not only on gender roles but the nature of ordination. 

Promotion for 2012 GA in Winnipeg
2012 - After 12 years, an unknown quantity of the C&MA's local churches have voted to allow women to their Elders' Boards (the statistics have not been kept; one estimate has it at 10%, but some have it closer to half). It is also unclear how many have had a vote or a discussion on the matter.

On the agenda to be discussed at GA in July is the matter of whether to ordain women. In an effort to clarify the issues involved the BOD has undergone some internal investigation and debate and determined (in statements found here, thoroughly explained by the BOD chairman Steve Kerr in videos found here) that, as it stands, nothing in the polity restricts women either from ordination or from the senior pastorate--despite the use of the word "man" in the ordination policy and the remaining restriction  on female eldership in most congregations (which eliminates the possibility of female senior pastors). All of this will undoubtedly have to be discussed.


If you would like to hear a twenty-two minute sermon offering an introduction to biblical egalitarianism (i.e., mutual submission), click here: (The sermon will play when the window opens so check your volume. Right-click to save a copy). Feel free to share, ask questions, seek clarifications, or prompt elaborations. There is obviously more that could be said. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Worth Watching: Looking Stranded and South

My friend Dave McGregor of Winnipeg Manitoba has made an eloquent short film I'd like to show you.

While you are at it, you might as well take in the song "South," written and performed by Dave and his wife Forrest with their Calgary Alberta band The New Family.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

On Religion and Theoretical Atheism

In the following excerpt, Barth is talking about how much energy is potentially mis-spent debating the ambiguous statement that "There is a God." There is a lot that I appreciate about what he asks us to ponder:
That there is no God may perhaps apply to the deity of philosophy, or to a deity that might be regarded as the common denominator of the gods of the different religions, or to a deity that demonstrates its existence by having a place in a world-view of human construction, or even perhaps to the "God" who is in one way or another poorly proclaimed and understood in some Christian tradition or theology.... Theoretical atheism is, of course, a frightful profanation of the name of God. Yet we may quietly say that the particular way in which it profanes God's name is not the most frightful. Indeed, since it is the most easily explicable, compared to others that we shall mention later, it is relatively the most innocuous.... 
[A] worse form [is religion, for it] thinks it has sought and found a positive substitute for what is lacking.... Because they do this positively, they do it in a much more illuminating, tempting, and dangerous fashion than any denial of God. In atheism the world defends itself against the threatening self-giving and self-declaration of God. In religion it tries to deal with him by establishing itself behind a wall of self-invented and self-made images of God, so that it may really be left to itself. This is why the angry protest of the biblical prophets is not directed against atheism but against the idolatry that characterizes the world around Israel, which may be seen in the religions of other peoples, and which is absolutely intolerable for Israel as the people of the true and living God.
- Karl Barth, The Christian Life, p. 128-130.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

City Permits, Religion, and the Gospel

This story caught my eye today. It is about Pastor Ken Shigematsu, of Tenth Church in Vancouver, and it shows how even the most seemingly straightforward administrative aspects of church life can have some depth of theological, historical, and political significance.
"[A.B.] Simpson started the Alliance Church because he couldn't be an evangelical Christian in good faith without ministering to a diverse crowd of people. Tenth Church walks in Simpson's shoes. Once a middle-class, all-Caucasian congregation, Tenth Church's demographic makeup began to change organically, simply because Ken was different.... Ken and his pastoral staff get up onto the stage every Sunday and preach the message of Jesus' love and forgiveness. This was also the impetus for starting a social justice ministry for the homeless [which eventually involved three meals a week and an overnight option for some visitors once a week]....
It was this ministry that got Ken and the church into trouble with the city when Tenth Church's building went under reconstruction. Upon inspecting the building, city planners told Ken that he had to get a social services permit in order to feed the homeless. He initially agreed, but there was an outcry among other religious communities who weren't able to afford the permit but were also feeding the hungry. Ken and his staff began to rethink the permit; as Ken's senior associate pastor Mardi Dolfo-Smith told the press, serving the poor is in fact part of the faith at Tenth Church, not an extra add-on, and what the city was doing was to define which parts of Tenth Church's practices were religious and which were social instead of letting the congregation speak for itself.
An interfaith committee headed by Chinese Christian activist Bill Chu was started to preserve social justice as an integral part of the faith for Tenth Church. Eventually, the city allowed [the service] to continue, and all of Vancouver's religious communities breathed a sigh of relief."
- Justin Tse, 'Hearing a Different Kind of Evangelical: Pastor Ken Shigematsu,' in ricepaper: Asian Canadian Arts and Culture 16/3 (Fall 2011), p. 56, emphasis added.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Three Years

It seems like only yesterday we were acquiring passports and readying to move to Scotland so I could begin PhD studies. At the time our twins were nine months old and we were still frazzled from a lack of sleep and the headaches of trying to move across the sea. Since that time, while I have not quite finished my dissertation, my wife and I (with great help from church and family) have managed to see these boys through their third birthday.

As proof, and in lieu of anything to yet show for my school work, here are their new passport photos. Click here to see the previous set (where you will see them on switched sides).

My oh my. These have been three rich years.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Interrupting Your Regularly Scheduled Reformations ...

In 1940 Paul Lehmann wrote a book called Forgiveness: Decisive Issue in Protestant Thought which first deals with the negative post-reformation trajectories of church and theology and proceeds to spell out some of the 'shattering of illusions' brought about by Karl Barth. Here is what Lehmann had to say by way of introduction to that section:
Paul Lehmann
"Whatever may happen ultimately to the movement associated with Barth's name, one contribution is securely established. The bondage of Protestantism to the religious principles of the Enlightenment has been broken by the force of a new theological method. Whether the twentieth-century heirs of the Reformation can, or will, recover thereby the peculiar genius of their legacy is a secondary question" (107).
Obviously the authors of 1940 were no less inclined to hyperbole than we might be today, but just to let the force of this roll around in your brain a bit longer, here's a blurb from the forward to the book, written by Reinhold Niebuhr:
Reinhold Niebuhr
"Professor Lehmann’s very vigorous treatise on the Reformation doctrine of forgiveness, as revived by Karl Barth in reaction to the dissipation of the doctrine in liberal theology, brings the central issue of Christian theology into sharp focus. That this is the central issue of Christain theology, is a fact not yet fully recognized in the modern church. Sooner or later it must be recognized" (x).
It is worth noting when this book was written, because this was before Barth left us the most mature expression of his theological services; the bulk of the Church Dogmatics, including his Doctrine of Reconciliation.

It is hard to be an evangelical these days and go very long without hearing gestures toward (or even promises of) another reformation in the Protestant Church. I think there is a grain of truth to the perception that such a thing is either impending or direly needed -- but, having read a lot from cultural analysts, the New Reformed and the Emergents on this score, the more I read Barth the more I am convinced that Paul Lehmann was right. To me it is both disheartening and promising that we are into the twenty-first century now and this has yet to really catch on.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Holy Saturday Meditation, with Bergman and Chesterton

Every Good Friday to Holy Saturday I intend to watch Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. Sometimes I get around to it, sometimes I don't. Five years ago I wrote this after watching the film a third time with some seminary friends; after being jarred again by its depth and its despair. There is still something very-the-matter with the earth, and the pastor in this film is done denying it. In fact he cries out about it.

[Spoiler alert! But in a way not, because this film cannot be spoiled.] For many interpreters of the film, I think this pastor's collapse represents his loss of faith. In a significant sense, even to him, surely it does. In that moment he says he is 'free'. But what strikes me is that there, in the stark cold of the bright winter light of his newfound 'freedom from God' - in his sickness and his suffering and in his 'freedom' - he finds himself crumbling at the altar of the crucifix of God.

In fact, keep watching and he ends up back at the church again, preparing to serve the communion. There is but one soul in the building ready to recieve. She is an avowed atheist, and yet she holds out hope for him. And in comes Algot the hunchback, who ordinarily lights the candles and rings the bells. This time he does so in more ways than one, however, for he reminds Tomas the pastor and doubter of the crucifixion of Christ, when God was forsaken of God. And it is in this solidarity with his sufferings that I think this despairing pastor finds the faith again to go on. Even if barely.

This scene always brings to mind for me the startling lines from GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy; lines better read in fuller context but which pack the following punch:
"If the divinity [of Christ] is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete ....

Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point – and does not break ....

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt ....

He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God ... [Search high and low and you won’t] find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist" (pp. 204-206)
At the cross we find a God who entered the wreckage and the silence of our disconnect and our travesty. We find the Creator who entered creation, and who came all the way and more. So when we feel the silence we know that He felt it aloud. We know that God is with us in it, and that in the crucified Saviour there is a silent suffering that speaks louder than words.

Tomas Ericsson as Pastor Gunnar Björnstrand in "Winter Light"
The silence only speaks, of course, because it was broken; because Jesus is alive. This Word has not been muted even by the death which it took on. Hearkening throughout the centuries it rings with every church bell and flickers with every church candle: There is more to the story. It may yet be winter but there is present the promise of spring. The Christian faith is nothing without this.

But Easter Sunday is also nonsensical without Holy Saturday. And yet I've been in enough Good Friday services to know that we tend to skip the forsaken Christ to get on with the happy ending; with what we construe to be the fulfilled life. But if our liturgy reflects our life, we may need to let the whole weekend ask us a question or two: What is the life into which the risen Jesus guides? Is it not to follow the Light in the darkness? Are not the people of God to find him and follow him in the world, bringing not disregard and presumption but a hope-filled willingness to wrestle together with God and to lose? Is it not the worst thing imaginable to wrestle alone and to win? We should be careful not to perpetuate such a thing  - this weekend most of all.

But to gather in a community where light meets darkness takes courage; a courage few (if any) of us have; a courage born of faith in a crucified and risen Lord. Nonetheless, since I've come this far let me leave with one more question: If our sanctuaries and homes are not the safe places for such courageous community, can we blame people for thinking our God is still dead? God help us.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

"This Bible is an Important Part of ..."

"This Bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book for answers.... You are now called to play your part in defending our country. It is my prayer that this Bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty, and South Africa and her people will forever be proud of you. Of all the weapons you carry, this is the greatest because it is the Weapon of God."
This is the inscription that was on the inside cover of Bibles given to soldiers of the South African Defense Force; the army which was responsible for enforcing the brutal system of apartheid in that country prior to the event of its overturning. Written by then President P.W. Botha, it is evidence of the degree to which much of the church was willing to be nationalized and commandeered by ultimately unbiblical forces. As one observer put it, they 'stood by silently and watched apartheid's murderous plan unfold' - and they thought their Bible supported it.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Interestingly, the person from whom I learned about the above inscription is a South African sociologist named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who had the opportunity to personally interview in prison one of apartheid's central enforcers; a man named Eugene de Kock, nicknamed 'Prime Evil' by some of those who were oppressed in his time. Having read Gobodo-Madikizela's amazing book a few years ago, scouring it this morning I was impressed again with its poignancy. What's particularly interesting here is Gobodo-Madikizela's account of de Kock's surprise when he came across a Bible in the knapsack of one of the members of the opposition army. When she asked him about it, he answered:

Eugene de Kock
"Here we have a SWAPO [South West African People's Organization] man who is supposed to be a communist, who is supposed to be the enemy, the personification of the Antichrist, who also ten-to-one that morning may have read the same Scripture lesson that said the enemy will be given into your hands. Now, on whose side is God now? Even today still I sit and - I expected to find a Little Red Book there or one of Lenin's condensed writings. And there they had the same Bible that my men and I carried in our rucksacks. They've got exactly the same Bible..."

Gobodo-Madikizela goes on to express her own surprise that de Kock seemed unaware there could be other readings of this Scripture that challenged his own. To me this is testimony to the problems inherent in becoming a reader of the Bible who has made the Bible "an important part of" something and thereby usurped its authority; a reader who no longer submits that reading to the larger interpretive conversation; who shields off contrary readings and criticism in favour of what has been taken to be the blessed angle. When that happens, the authority of Scripture is deadened and the authority of the interpreter or the interpreter's favoured community takes precedence. As Christians we confess belief in the authority of Scripture, but we need to confess the authority of Scripture in as much as it is read in the Spirit, which means under the authority of the living Word, Jesus Christ, who brings readers into a loving and thus listening- and truth-speaking-communion, in order to read and to be read by, the Bible.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Miroslav Volf on Nietzsche's "Superhuman Forgiveness"

Having recently relayed some different "takes" on forgiveness I thought I'd return to the theme today with another. In the literature regarding the practice of forgiveness it is often described as an internal switch of mind in which the person is able to "let go" of or "rise above" an offence, experiencing personal therapy and opening up a social high road (which may or may not be travelled by the other party involved). Sometimes Christians will advocate such internalized forgiveness by saying that the forgiver is to act "as if" the offence had not occurred. This may have some credence on some levels, but seems an inadequate account of forgiveness, as is illustrated in the following assessment of Nietzsche, given by Miroslav Volf:

 "In The Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche advocated a version of 'as-if-not' attitude toward transgression .... an attitude toward transgression untouched by concerns for justice as desert. He writes:

Friedrich Nietzche
'To be unable to take his enemies, his misfortunes and even his misdeeds seriously for long--that is the sign of strong, rounded natures with superabundance of a power which is flexible, formative, healing and can make one forget.... A man like this shakes from him, with one shrug, many worms which would have burrowed into another man; here and here alone is it possible, assuming that this is possible at all on earth--truly to 'love your neighbour.''

Such sovereign disregard for injuries from others demands extraordinary strength, almost that of an übermensch [superman].... [However], his example of the 'virtuous' [man] could not forgive because he had forgotten!... Nietzsche had little positive to say about [forgiveness] and tended to replace it with 'forgetting.'"

To my mind this seems largely inadequate for another reason, which is that it expects superhuman strength precisely from the one who has been victimized. Add it up and Nietzsche's sort of forgiveness is more like an argument for the politics of disregard, supporting the sequestering of power by those who are able to transcend their situation and carry on in the repression of others undaunted. In other words, it is the stuff of violence, and not of grace. We should watch that our Christian accounts of forgiveness do not take this form.

- See Miroslav Volf, "Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice," 
in Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Templeton, 2001), p. 36-38, and 
Nietzche, On the Geneology of Morals (Cambridge, 1994), p. 23-24

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jason Good on Parenting

I sometimes wish I was more capable of blogging about parenting in a way that truly captured the paradox of its horror and humour, pain and epiphany, perplexity and poignancy, plodding challenge and surprising reward. Thankfully there is Jason Good, a comedian who happens to manage it quite well. I can't promise everyone will be happy with his language from time to time, but this list of things parents never thought they would do is still one of the funniest things I've ever read. Slightly less outlandish, but all the more accurate a depiction of the experience of parenting young twins, is this elaboration on the phenomenon of playing cheerleaders to their every escapade.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Tree of Life: A Moving Picture

We watched Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life last night. It is a beautiful moving picture, managing to be both subtle and immense. It is visually and thematically ambitious, and enjoyable for this reason alone. The opening monologue sets it up well, as a story of nature and grace. Through this lens we see shots of the universe in all its natural glory, from macrocosm to microcosm. We also see a family, seemingly divided down the middle between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace". As the voice over tells us: The one "only wants to please itself, to have its own way," and the other “doesn’t try to please itself; it accepts being slighted, accepts insults and injuries." Then we hear the suggestion that "no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”--even though this is exactly what is being called into question throughout the film. These are incredible themes to base a film around, and it is evocatively done. For doing that well it has my applause.

I'll agree with this reviewer, who voices some disappointment that the theme of grace seems mostly passive and might have been portrayed with more complexity (i.e., grace in the form of a courageous self-giving). However, it is not like the portrayal is shallow. We see the tension in the characters themselves, and even see the two most willful characters come to a point of confession between them. We see both the beauty and horror of nature -- with the former writ large and the latter haunting the whole -- like a National Geographic film except with a full dose of self-consciousness about the questions of meaning. When it comes to the human narrative I suppose I was wishing for was a truer picture of the (seemingly foolish) courage of grace. But I suppose one can't fault a film for not having a full-blown Christ figure. In fact, if it had one, we might be criticizing it for spoon-feeding us instead of leaving us with the longing. Perhaps what the reviewer is on to -- the concerting thing about the film -- is that it is so realistic; nature does always seem to have the upper hand. But even with its harder edges, it looks gorgeous.

For me this film was an 8/10 (which for me means it was very good), and I wouldn't fault anyone for giving it full marks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Karl Barth, About Himself, On Video

Having read him for years now, and seen a few scattered pictures and heard some fleeting words, I just saw Karl Barth on video for the first time in my life thanks to (follow the link to see more videos and a host of other great stuff, compiled by his great grand-daughter).

This reminds me of when, after years of reading Chesterton, I sat in Prof. Sean Davidson's class and heard an audio tape of G.K.'s voice for the first time. It was very surreal at first, but after a while the echoes of that voice start to inform your readings, past and present, bringing to them a new sense of the person, and of their reality.

By the way, Barth's comments in this clip are fantastic insights into his approach to life and work. Based on his answer, the question seems to have been whether he had taken delight in provocation.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Karl Barth on the Apparent and the Living Church

Picture from 1953's WCC. Barth is third from the right.
"When the Church dies, the horizon does not become clear, of course: a simple vacuum is not the result. It pertains to the darkness of the threat and temptation which besets the Church (or seen in another light, of course, it is a sign of God's patience) that something which seems to be and look like the Church, though not deserving that name, remains on the scene. Even a dead congregation, or the dead element of a living congregation, is accustomed to have the form of 'Church,' 'Church' tradition, and 'Church' life....

In fact it can even happen that the Church might cease to be the Church and that then the thing which is still called 'Church' really comes to life and gains might, splendor, and significance in world history. It can happen that precisely the apparition of the Church or the apparent Church, the Church with the sleepy, squinting, or blind eyes, the Church in which the confrontation of God with people and people with God is no longer an event, but only an institution, dogma, program, and problem, can fall on especially good days in this age and may enjoy the special respect of society and the state. If the Church falls on such good days, then it has indeed cause to ask itself whether it might not be the Devil whom it should acknowledge and thank for the fact that it has long since become the apparent Church. But the other question is also not to be silenced: whether, when bad days come, it might not be God's well-earned judgment which sooner or later must meet it already in this age, since it has become only the apparent Church....

Dead congregations can only be divided congregations, only falsely united in such a way that at any minute they might break into open conflict with each other. But the matter is yet more serious: the fact that living and dead congregations live together more or less in peace in no way suggests that they might become a single congregation.... The living congregation is itself not infallible nor beyond danger, and its own danger will undoubtedly become greater by the fact that it has this dead congregation, this apparent Church next to it and cannot exist otherwise than in contradiction to it.

This means the temptation for it to conform" or on the other hand "to become presumptuous and callous," judging everything "on the basis of ecclesiastical opposition as though this were the source of the revelation which fed it. This is the temptation of ecclesiastical self-righteousness, the realization of which would mean the death of this congregation, its transformation into an apparent Church."

- From Karl Barth's paper at the 1948 World Council of Churches,
"The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ,"
published in God Here and Now (2003), pp. 72-75.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Vladimir Jankélévitch on Forgiving and Forgetting

Vladimir Jankélévitch, photo by Marion Kalter
This excerpt, originally from Vladimir Jankélévitch's 1967 Le Pardon, might make us think twice about the flippancy with which we sometimes treat the subject of forgiveness - perhaps concerning ourselves with its therapeutic usefulness, ascribing it a definition similar to forgetfulness.

"The sentiment that we [Jews] experience is not called rancor but horror insurmountable, horror over what happened, horror of the fanatics who perpetrated this thing, of the passive who accepted it, and the indifferent who have already forgotten it. This is our 'resentment' [ressentiment].

For ressentiment can also be the renewed and intensely lived feeling of the inexpiable thing; it protests against a moral amnesty that is nothing but shameful amnesia; it maintains the sacred flame of disquiet and faith to invisible things. Forgetfulness here would be a grave insult to those who died in the camps and whose ashes are forever mixed in the earth. It would be a lapse of seriousness and dignity, a shameful frivolity.

Yes, the memory of what happened is indelible in us, indelible like the tattoos that the survivors still wear on their arms. Each spring the trees bloom at Auschwitz as they do everywhere, for the grass is not too disgusted to grow in those accursed fields; springtime does not distinguish between our gardens and those places of inexpressible misery. Today when the sophists recommend forgetfulness, we will forcefully mark our mute and impotent horror before the dogs of hate; we will think hard about the agony of the deportees without sepulchers and of the little children who did not come back. Because this agony will last until the end of the world."

- Vladimir Jankélévitch, "Should We Pardon Them?" translated by
Ann Hobart in Critical Inquiry vol. 22, no. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 572.

(For more, see my essay on forgiveness and memory published here).