Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Word in the World: What Is Truth?

It seems unfair to mention Exiles by Michael Frost by jumping straight in with a criticism, but having read the first four chapters I've noticed something that is conspicuous by its absence in the book and in my own theological ravings outworkings - a framework for making sense of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John. 

Frost writes this about our perception of Jesus:

When we see Jesus as light from light, true God from true God, it dramatically changes our spirituality. Jesus becomes one to be worshipped, examined, reflected upon. The earlier creeds, however, present a lifestyle to be followed.

Frost puts "worship" and "discipleship" at odds with one another, but the two are very much part of the human vocation: we are called to worship the one we are called to be like. I admire the attempt to recapture the humanity of Jesus, but I think Frost goes about it by setting up some false dichotomies. And in so doing, Frost sets up the Fourth Gospel as a conundrum - it being the Gospel that talks of Jesus being the "light" and the Word that "was God" from the beginning. In fact the opening of the Fourth Gospel is extremely philosophical in its approach to Jesus, with its language of "being" and "becoming", its imagery of "true light" and its employment of that dense word logos. Though John's Gospel doesn't continue in this highly stylized way, it does continue to pose a problem to those of us who gravitate towards the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels - namely, how can we see the synoptics and John together, when they look so different?

I think a pathway to an answer lies in Pilate the postmodern sceptic's question: What is truth? The whole of the New Testament is a partial answer to this haunting question, with the key proclamation being that "telling the truth about God" is now commensurate with "telling the truth about Jesus". On the ground, that means -- according to Brueggemann -- that "in Jesus of Nazareth the things of the world are settled on God's terms". This is kingdom of God language. The language of place and persons being "not of this world" and yet in this world, against this world, but ultimately for this world - for it precisely because they are against it. Each Gospel has various accents on this truth, but there can be a "seeing together" that is historically useful, canonically faithful, and spiritually fruitful. We need all the witnesses we can get if we are to speak truthfully about Jesus to the world, and to speak truthfully about Jesus to the church. Why is this such a difficult, urgent task? Brueggemann's sums it up in one short paragraph:

The world...cannot bear the truth of Jesus, for that truth moves beyond our capacities to control and our power to understand. And so the world "gives false witness" about Jesus. In doing so, it gives false representation about the world. Just as exilic Jews preferred not to tell the truth about Yahweh because it is a truth too subversive, so many of us in the church choose to bear false witness about Jesus, because the managed, reassuring truth of the empire is more compelling. The truth evidenced in Jesus is not an idea, not a concept, not a formulation, not a fact. It is rather a way of being in the world in suffering and hope, so radical and so raw that we can scarcely entertain it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Prayer

Three years ago, the person responsible for Creideamh uttered a prayer of thanksgiving that has since transformed my prayer life. It started like this:

"God, thank you for the European Championships..."

As an homage to that simple utterance of gratitude, here is a prayer of my own ahead of the Champions League final:

God, thank you for soccer. Thank you that it is neither more important nor less important than "real life", but rather a part of it. At its best, it is a reflection of your playfulness, your creativity and artistry, your bringing of order out of chaos and establishment of principles and strictures that enhance enjoyment rather than diminish it. Thank you also for Lionel Messi, who demonstrates to us -- in small part -- the wonder of embodied existence. When we watch this remarkable creaturely display our relentless desire for explanations evaporate and we are left to marvel. But Messi himself points to where our marvel ought to finally be directed - towards the heavens, towards the Creator who gifts his creatures, leaving none to boast.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Exile In Need of a Bride

For almost as long as I can remember, I have gone to church every Sunday morning at 10.30am religiously, so to speak. Through primary school, secondary school, college and work, my whereabouts at this time of the week remained a constant in the varying routines that came and went. I never questioned this practice, I never doubted the habit that had been formed for me and which I in turn formed for myself. I still don't.

Yet there is an irony at work in my life right now. In September I moved from Galway to Belfast, a city with a church in view almost everywhere you turn your head. Throw a stone in Belfast, and chances are it will land on a church building. I moved to Belfast to study Theology, a discipline whose beating heart is the church. And yet it is only here and now that my church-going habit has been broken. I move to the home of churches to study Theology, and suddenly I cease from being a regular church attender.

What's going on?

My history as a church member has been one of participation. At home in Galway I have been part of the same church for 17 years or so, moving from Sunday School member to youth group member to worship team member to Sunday School leader to Worship Team leader. I have a role in that church, which gives me a distinct identity. And not only do I have a role, but I have family. I am known not only for what I do in the church, but also for the people who call me "son" or "brother" or "cousin" or "nephew". I eat dinner with some of these family members church every Sunday I am in Galway. To question whether I belong in the church would almost be to question whether I belong at home, for church and home are very much interrelated come Sunday. I am no isolated "Bible College student from down South" when I step inside the doors of GCF. I am Declan Kelly - Dermot and Pauline's son.

In Belfast, these identifiers have been stripped away from me. I go to a church and I am little more than a consumer who can walk in and walk out of the store, no strings attached. This feels so little like church that I've stopped doing it. It is a form of godliness without any commitment to neighbours, and it doesn't sit right. Yet how else does one find a church to commit to, if "trying them out" is not the answer? Am I at a time in my life where I need to be a consumer and find a church that I can buy in to?

This leads to another problem. Is any church the right church, or should I find one that falls in line with my (admittedly hazy) vision for church? The former seems naive to the reality that there are churches out there that will crush your spirit and which ought to be avoided, while the latter is an "ideal" that is quite rightly unrealistic.

I love church...or at least the idea of church. To have a community of believers committed to God and to each other, learning to live together through participation in practices and habits that don't conform to the anti-creational patterns of the present world order - this is indeed an "artistic operation" that I want to be a part of, that I want to commit my life to. But as I hop from church to church -- or as I don't, as the case may be -- I feel like an exile, displaced from my church heritage and wandering in a foreign land, where the old songs I know don't fit. I am learning so much during my hours spent reading and writing, but the more I learn the more distant I feel from what goes on inside the churches I visit. The sermons often seem uninspired and flat, the music is the same ol' Chris Tomlin stuff that I can sing on autopilot, the people are either too old or too cool or not cool enough.

I read Volf, or Hauerwas, or Brueggemann, or Wright, or Wells, or Caputo and I feel inspired and challenged to follow Jesus. I spend my time around campus and I am surrounded by a community consisting of people from all over the world...or at least I was surrounded by such a community. By fusing these practices together I have created my own church in many ways, but it is a phoney church of which I am the head. To follow Jesus is to follow him to a local church. As hard as I have found it to belong to one of those up here, I can't escape this uncomfortable truth. What I consider to be learning will not really prove to be learning unless it is lived out in a community not of my controlling, and certainly not of my consuming. 

But which church do I commit to?  

Kevin at Creideamh links to a friend's blog on the topic of being married to the church. My question is, How does one know what church to marry? Is it some sort of calling, a matter of finding "the one"? Perhaps those who are actually married to a man/woman can weigh in on the similarities or differences between the two processes. Joshua Harris told me to stop dating the church. But don't I have to date churches before I decide to marry one of them? Or does the analogy of being married to the church break down before it even begins?

Whatever the case, I know that changes need to occur within me as I look forward to at least two more years in Belfast. I have been in healthy, dynamic churches in Belfast, and perhaps I need to return to some of those with fresh eyes. "Soft eyes" to use the Bunk's term, which will allow me to see and experience the whole community as it worships together rather than focussing in on one aspect of a service that I don't like. Besides, since when does "I don't like" get the final word?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Church is an "artistic operation"

Brueggemann at his best:

The last minute or so captures one of my main thoughts on the film Of Gods and Men: The power of artistic liturgy for the formation of an alternative reality in which righteousness and peace are at home. As an inheritor of a certain brand of Pentecostalism, "liturgy" has always been seen as a dirty word, but that is clearly not the right way to view it.

Re-thinking here I come.

An artist has to seek an audience or a constituency, and I think they are to be found among the wounded. And I think the wounded in our society are everywhere, but we are schooled in denial. So I believe the hard task is to break the denial so that people can get in touch with their own pain. I think that art both ministers to people at the point of their pain, but may also be a way of penetrating the denial to have a conversation about it in the first place. I think that the pressure for certitude and absolutism is a kind of anxious and frightened response to the reality of pain. We think we cannot bear it, so we protect ourselves from it by imagining that we don’t know about our own pain. What we always discover is that if we can get access to our pain in our community that we trust, our pain almost always is bearable because the trustworthiness of our brothers and sisters will hold and is reliable and will not let us fall through. It seems to me that what good artistry has to do is to help us see or hear that our certitudes are mainly phoney, that life does not conform to our certitudes, that our absolutes are much less than absolute, because the force of stuff that comes underneath in our experience will not give in to that. When I think of the OT I think that Job is the perfect model of that. Job’s friends are the practitioners of certitude and absolute orthodoxy and all of that. And Job’s artistry keeps coming underneath that, to protest against that cover up. I don’t quite know how it works in the book of Job, but I believe that God in the ‘whirlwind speeches’ is also something of an artist; that he moves in big images and questions, and invites a fresh think about things. So that seems to me to be a place in which the poetry wants to subvert the world of the prose in which the friends live. That’s how my mind works about it.

And, if we think at all about the church, it is historically and intrinsically an artistic operation. It always struck me in the little rural church where I grew up, that no matter how flat and unimaginative and prosaic the life of the village was, we had that organ music on Sunday morning. And what the organ music did was to create space for us to ponder the stuff that didn’t fit the formulae. And by and large the language of the church and the language of liturgy is essentially artistic language. We’ve flattened it, so the work, it seems to me first of all, is to help people see that what has been entrusted to us is artistic from the bottom up. If people are caught in dogmatism or in moralism they tend not to notice how incredibly artistic it all is.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Biblical Epistemology

Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD. Jer. 22:15-16

"Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" And Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Matt. 11:3-5

'Awareness of vocation' is by no means the same thing as Jesus having the sort of 'supernatural' awareness of himself, of Israel's god, and of the relation between the two of them, such as is often envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a 'high' christology, place it within an eighteenth-century context of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus' 'divinity' only by holding some form of docetism. Jesus did not, in other words, 'know that he was God' in the same way that one knows one is male or female, hungry or thirsty, or that one ate an orange an hour ago. His 'knowledge' was of a more risky, but perhaps more significant, sort: like knowing one is loved. One cannot 'prove' it except by living it. Wright, JVG

A central Christian conviction is that Jesus is the revelation of God. Our knowledge of God is intimately tied up with this Jewish prophet from Nazareth. But what about Jesus's knowledge of God? Within what epistemological framework was Jesus working from birth to death to birth from the dead?

Wright rejects the notion that Jesus possessed a Chalcedonian christology, a supernatural awareness of his unique, infinite relationship with God. Judging by Jesus's answer to John the Baptist quoted above, this seems to be a right rejection. When asked if he is "the one to come", Jesus does not point John to his divine credentials, his membership within the trinity, his knowledge of God that goes back before the dawn of time. Instead, he informs John that justice is taking place for the poor and the needy. What is the significance of this?

To take up Wright's point, perhaps it is through this doing of justice that Jesus knew God and knew his own relation to this God. The passage in Jeremiah 22 speaks of what it means to be a king, and the conclusion is that it entails doing justice and righteousness. Without such doing, being the "king" (or "the one who is to come") was an empty title, and knowledge of God was absent.

The extent to which Jesus participated in God's bringing of justice to the world through teaching, preaching and healing was the extent to which he knew God and knew his own unique relation to this God. I think this gets to the heart of what it means for us to know God. It is not about us merely knowing the kind of person Jesus is. It is not about having a "high" christology. It is about being "in Christ", being in the one who has already come and will return once more, which means participatung in his kind of life - a life of justice, peace and joy in the spirit. The extent to which we participate in God's mission to bring justice to earth -- a mission motivated by perhaps nothing more or less than God's love for justice -- is the extent to which we know the God revealed in Jesus. This is the uncomfortable epistemology of the Bible.

"One cannot 'prove' it except by living it."

I can only end by concluding that I know very little of God, so you probably shouldn't believe a word of what I say.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Of Gods and Men - Initial Thought

It's not the monks' commitment to non-violence that is so remarkable. It's their commitment to stay: to stay the course, to stay with the daily practices that constitute their lives as a Christian community, to stay following Jesus. Even in the midst of grave danger, they do not waver on their commitment to be neighbours in this community to which they are called - neighbours to enemy and friend alike. That this neighbourliness entails a radical commitment to peace is almost obvious given the habits they had formed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Video To Remember

This is a video I decided to make at the very end of my first year at Belfast Bible College. It's a collection of interviews and footage featuring some of the people who became like family over the past 9 months. Unfortunately I didn't get to include everyone I would have liked to include. There are some very notable absentees, and for that I do apologise. Everyone who didn't feature will just have to come back next year for the second instalment!

I could say a lot more about my first year at BBC, but for now I'll let the video do the talking. Comments welcome, as ever.

BBC 10/11 Remembered from Declan Kelly on Vimeo.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Seek Justice

…it was because the orientation of Israel’s writers was practical rather than theoretical that the quartet of the vulnerable low ones looms so large in their writings. What they say about justice and injustice occurs within the context of an imperative they had heard from Yahweh and that they now announced to their fellows: seek justice, undo the bonds of injustice. Israel’s religion was a religion of salvation, not of contemplation – that is what accounts for the mantra of the widows, the orphans, the aliens, and the poor. Not a religion of salvation from this earthly existence but a religion of salvation from injustice in this earthly existence. – Nicholas Wolterstorff

Justice in this life and knowledge of God are intimately related. Doing a degree in theology without the daily practice of justice is a pointless -- even nonsensical -- exercise.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Inheriting a Family Tradition of the oddities of the contemporary situation is that what it means to be a person, to be free and/or autonomous, is to be capable of creating or "choosing" our "identity". Thus, we do not think of ourselves as inheriting a family tradition or a group identity with which we must learn to live. Rather, our particular story is that we have no history and thus we can pick and choose among the many options offered by our culture. I suspect that this may account for the tremendous pressure many feel today in choosing a vocation -- for it is our vocations, or perhaps better our jobs, that provide us with the basic account of who we are -- teacher, doctor lawyer, and so on. And since it seems we "choose" to undertake one of these tasks rather than another we have the presumption that we have created our own story or "self". - Stanley Hauerwas

I help at a weekly after-schools club in Twinbrook, which is on the outskirts of Belfast city. It is a Catholic community, which is its defining characteristic - its identity, really. Such is life in Northern Ireland. I didn't quite know what this meant in concrete terms for the first while, other than there being the presence of a Catholic church in the parish that people attended. But over time I've begun to understand the story that has been chosen for and told to the teenagers with whom I hang out.

The first incident was about 6 months ago, when I asked one of the guys what soccer team he supports. "Celtic" was the automatic response. I asked him how they got on at the weekend. He didn't know. I asked him how they were doing in the league. He didn't know.

The second incident was a conversation with a couple of them. They told me about throwing bottles and stones at police vans that drive through the neighbourhood. I asked them "Why?" One of the guys said to me, "Haven't you heard about the troubles around here?" I said I had, but I wondered how they knew about the old stories from before their time. "My Daddy tells them to me". Here we have a prime of example of "inheriting a family tradition", for better or worse.

The final incident was a walk up to the Catholic church for a youth event. I had never properly ventured beyond the confines of the school grounds. so I didn't have much of a picture of what the community as a whole looked like. On my way, however, the presentness of the community's history became clear as day. There on the side of a house was a mural of a 12 year old girl who was "murdered by British troops" in 1989. On the side of the community centre were drawings of the hunger strikers, who would always be "remembered".

This community lives by the memory of its history. Its members are formed by remembrance. They are each of them story-shaped, living in the richness of a tradition. Hauerwas's critique -- though relevant to not a few of us in the West -- does not touch Twinbrook.

My question since discovering what was right in front of me is this: How do you begin to share the gospel in this place? What does the story of Jesus have to say to the stories that these boys have grown up hearing from family and friends? Are they forced to utterly abandon the narrative that has been so crucial to their formation as people -- a "forcing" that has happened in the Republic among Catholics who have become Protestants Christians? Surely not, I hope. Clearly we are called not to live in denial of the past, but do we "count it all as loss for the sake of of Christ"? But what does Paul mean by this, and how does it affect the outlook we have on our personal history?

Answers, more questions, and anything else welcome in the comments.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Church's Most Important Task

Stanley Hauerwas does not set out to be provocative. His goal is truthfulness and faithfulness. But as the prophetic voices of old learned through bitter experience, truthfulness and faithfulness often provoke.

I've just handed in an all-consuming essay today (aside: it's a strange feeling when you hand in a piece of work. After the hours spent in its company there's a sense of loss and disorientation as it drops into its new home - a large box that lets your work in but will not let it out without the authority of another. You feel like you've lost a friend -- an irritating, trying friend at times, but a friend nonetheless. (an aside to my aside: I've just called my essays "friends". I need help)) Not knowing what to do with myself in the aftermath, I picked out a few Hauerwas books from the library shelves and just started reading. For pleasure. For interest. For thought. It is a measure of the man's ability to think and write that after the first two sentences of the first paragraph that I read, I immediately called to the attention of my North American friend, who had to hear this. The same happened with the next sentence. And the sentences that followed that.

While North Americans are in Hauerwas's crosshairs, us Europeans are just as culpable and just as in need of being on the receiving end of this most important task:

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Here is something worth considering when we think of anything in the Scriptures that is dubbed "everlasting" or "eternal" or "forever":

The mere fact that the [Sinai] covenant was everlasting might not guarantee that it stays in force no matter what Israel does. Many things that God says will be everlasting such as the Temple, the priesthood, and the Davidic monarchy seem not to be everlasting.
- John Goldingay