Friday, July 29, 2011

Five Favourite Footballers

Those who know me know that I love football. And Haribo. But mainly football. Because it's good to write about things other than the usual schtick, and because most of my theological thinking over the next couple of weeks will be poured into a project for the good people of First Assemblies of God, Worcester, I plan on dedicating the next five posts to my five favourite footballers.

Rules of Engagement

1. Tangible achievement counts for little. These players will not be selected based on trophies won or individual honours received. They will be selected because watching them play has given me pleasure and has made me want to play the way they play.

2. I'm not saying you have to be a mercurial playmaker to make the list, but it will help.

3. I cannot select Michael Laudrup, even though his YouTube clips are the best out there. I wasn't really watching football when he was in his prime, so he must be excluded. The same goes for anyone who's prime was in 1995 or earlier.

4. There will be no ranking until after all five posts are completed. The order they come in will therefore be arbitrary.

5. Feel free to comment on the predictability of my choices, or perhaps leave some YouTube evidence for why I have or haven't got a clue. Memorable moments, blatant cheating, choking under pressure, rising to the occasion, interesting facts/stories - it's all good.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


The assumptions we build our lives on:

We are rational creatures, and

The height of humanity is rationality.

The assumptions Christians ought to build their lives on:

We are creatures, and

The height of humanity is obedience to our creator.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Man's Struggle

The Wire is not just a television show - it is a sociological phenomenon for those with eyes to see. It is a devastating critique of an ideology that orders some lives while bringing chaos to others. It has been labelled "Dickensian". I might call it Hauerwasian or Brueggemannian, in so far as it is a prophetic voice naming the American empire for what it is/what it does - though the kind of hope that Hauerwas or Brueggemann might invoke in the face of this empire is largely absent.

But that doesn't mean the show is without hope, or without nourishment for the soul. The end of an article by Brian Cook in 2008 gets to the heart of The Wire. It is at this heart that David Simon's Jewish rootage can be discerned, with the core of his creation being man's "struggle". Jacob struggled with God and triumphed. The outcome that The Wire envisions is ambiguous at best, but it always portrays the struggle as one that must be had, whether it gets results or not.

...ultimately, the show is most enjoyable because...the value it holds most high is struggle. Its heroes and anti-heroes might be victims, but they are not passive. Rather, they are actively driven by a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What marks the show's few villains are their complacency and acceptance of "the way things are." What defines the show's heroes is that they will fight -- their clueless bosses, their politicians, their rivals, their lovers, their addictions, themselves. 
Will they win these struggles? This season, most signs point toward "no." But rather than despair, that leads me to recall the words of journalist I.F. Stone: 
The only kinds of fights worth having are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing -- for the sheer fun and joy of it -- to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it. 
The bleakest thing about The Wire is that it's ending after the current season.Desperate Housewives, meanwhile, is set to go on until 2011. Now that's a depressing thought.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Semiotics of the Cross

Hauerwas and Willimon on the semiotics of the cross:

The cross is not a sign of the church's quiet, suffering submission to the powers-that-be, but rather the church's revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers. The cross is not a symbol for general human suffering and oppression. Rather, the cross is what happens when one takes God's account of reality more seriously than Caesar's.

Unsurprisingly, a book co-authored by Hauerwas and Willimon is absurdly quotable, and opens up a whole new thought-world in a sentence or two. Expect more from Resident Aliens in the future. For instance:

Our built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Missions Apart From Conversions

Last week I wondered what impact a cultural-linguistic perspective on religion would make on the church's understanding of its task of evangelism. If that opening sentence hasn't succeeded in deterring you from reading any further, then have a look of what Lindbeck himself has to say on the matter of the church's "missionary task". Without wanting to overstate the case, Lindbeck's proposal has completely changed how I view missions/evangelism. Not because I agree (or disagree) with him, but simply because I am now forced to wrestle with what it is he says. can be argued in a variety of ways that Christian churches are called upon to imitate their Lord by selfless service to neighbours quite apart from the question whether this promotes conversions. They also have scriptural authorization in passages such as Amos 9:7-8 for holding that nations other than Israel -- and, by extension, religions other than the biblical ones -- are peoples elected (and failing) to carry out their distinctive tasks within God's world. If so, not everything that pertains to the coming of the kingdom has been entrusted to that people of explicit witness which knows what and where Jerusalem is and (as believers hope) marches toward it, if only in fits and starts. It follows from these considerations that Christians may have a responsibility to help other movements and other religions make their own contributions, which may be quite distinct from the Christian one, to the preparation of the Consummation. The missionary task of Christians may at times be to encourage Marxists to become better Marxists, Jews and Muslims to become better Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists to become better Buddhists (although admittedly their notion of what a "better" Marxist," etc., is will be influenced by Christian norms). Obviously this cannot be done without the most intensive and arduous conversation and cooperation.

As a matter of interest, what is the relationship between "missions" and "evangelism"? Are they two different words for the same reality? Is missions broader than evangelism, or is evangelism much broader than is commonly understood?

Discontinuity Embodied

For 50 minutes The Crystal Maze consists of a range of skill games, mystery games, mental games, and physical games, each carefully designed to test the logical, mechanical, dexterical, lexical, and mathematical faculties of the contestants. And then for the grand finale they throw the six contestants into a giant ball and get them to frantically grab at gold notes, making them look like complete plonkers.

It's like Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov getting to the World Chess Championship final, with the tournament organisers then forcing them to mud wrestle for the title.

I love it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The (Possible) Failure of a Cognitivist Approach to Evangelism and Discipleship (Or, My Most Boring Post Title Yet)

Religion cannot be pictured in the cognitivist (and voluntarist) manner as primarily a matter of deliberately choosing to believe or follow explicitly known propositions or directives. Rather, to become religious - no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent, is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. Sometimes explicitly formulated statements of belief or behavioral norms of a religion may be helpful in the learning process, but by no means always. Ritual, prayer, and example are normally much more important. 
- Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine

I'm far from an expert on evangelism and discipleship, but would it be fair comment to say that in the last 300 years the almost exclusive form of evangelism and discipleship in the West has been "cognitivist", and that this form -- or rather, the people who have employed it -- have largely failed in their task to make disciples in the mold of Jesus?

This is the form in caricature:

These are the absolute fundamental things that we believe. Do you believe them too? Yes? Then you are now a convert to Christianity. Now we will give you more stuff to believe, thus forming you into a mature Christian.

I think Lindbeck's notion of "interiorizing a set of skills by practice and training" opens up the possibility of a far deeper and richer form of discipleship, although I do wonder what his cultural-linguistic approach to religion does for evangelism.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the Explicit Nature of Mumford and Sons

I've struggled to come to terms with Mumford and Sons. I feel like I should like them, and at times I do like them, but I just can't embrace them as a band that I intentionally listen to. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think I know at least one of the reasons:

They are too explicit.

The cornerstone of anything whose currency is words is truth telling. Even in fiction. Of course when it comes to words, there are different ways of stringing them together depending on the form you want to create. Poems, essays, novels, letters, journalistic articles, bus timetables all have different ways of telling a truth. When it comes to writing a song, its form most resembles the poetic or the narrative form. In fact a song is basically a poem or a story with a melody. And because this is the form of a song, the best songwriters learn to master this form. They tell a truth, but they tell it in this form.

Rhyming can be part of this form, but just because your words rhyme it doesn't mean you are writing in the form, with the primary task now being to write good rhymes instead of bad ones. Good rhymes are an aid to the primary task of a song, but they are not the task. The task, in the words of Emily Dickonson, is to "tell all the truth but tell it slant". You approach your feeling, you approach your story, you approach your philosophy or theology, but you approach from a different angle, and you tell it from a different angle. You do not come right out and explicitly say,

In these bodies we will live, and in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

(Incidentally, Awake My Soul is probably my favourite song on the album)

This gives me, the listener, very little work to do. It gives me very little scope for imagination. The songs bears all in just two lines, and there is nowhere else for it (or me) to go. It is naked. It is explicit. I'm reminded of Orson Welles's philosophy for the creation of a scene -- which I think ought to be true, mutatis muntandis, for the creation of a song:

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

I think the profound irony at work in the film and music business is that most of the films and concerts that attract the largest numbers of people are actually the least "social acts". These events are little more than filmmakers and bands spoon feeding an audience that hasn't been trained to think artistically and creatively, that hasn't been trained to bring something to the table. In fact the audience has been trained in the opposite - sit passively and receive/be gratified/be entertained. (And unfortunately, as in world so in church.)

Lumping Mumford and Sons in with some kind of soulless industry is harsh, but if you saw the kind of people who attended their show in Galway back in March then you would begin to ask some questions. Philistines, I tell you!

Of course the criticism I'm leveling at Mumford and Sons could probably be leveled at any number of artists that I regularly listen to, but as Linton Barwick says, "by God it's a useful hypocrisy".

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

People and Scripture

According to Friedrich Schleiermacer, we must "avoid the impression that a doctrine must belong to Christianity because it is contained in Scripture, whereas in point of fact it is only contained in Scripture because it belongs to Christianity."

One of the areas I would like to explore further as I continue my theological journey is the relationship between the people of God and Scripture, and the nature of the things which this relationship seems to generate - doctrine, ethics, ecclesial practice etc.

Right now my conviction is that some of us have the relationship backwards. This thinking posits that Scripture comes first, and out of it the people of God are formed. But in reality it is the people of God who are formed first, and it is through this people that Scripture is produced. This applies not only to "back then" but very much to the here and now. The people of God, the interpretive community, continues to produce Scripture in the sense that it continues to produce the reality in which Scripture is read as Scripture. Of course the body of people only produce this reality by their connection to the head of the body and by the life of the spirit flowing through them.

Back to Schleiermacher's point, we don't say that God is love because our Scripture says it. Rather, our Scripture says it because that is the kind of God who is revealed to (and who even creates) the people of God in the Christ-event, and these unveiled and newly created people are witnesses to and ambassadors of this same love. "God is love" is only contained in Scripture because there existed (and exists) a people of God for whom these words are intelligible and meaningful, in so much as they point to a reality that exists outside of the words but which nonetheless must be named with words.

I'm not sure if that makes sense, or if I even agree with Schleiermacher (or myself), but this is my quick attempt at drawing a monster, so to speak.

About a Friendship

Song writers do not tend to write songs about a friendship. Why is that? Film makers do not tend to make films about a friendship, unless there is a girl who gets in the way of it. Why is that? Have we lost the ability to tell good stories about friendship? Have we actually devalued friendship to the point where we don't have many good stories to tell? A film about friendship that comes to mind is The Social Network, but the story it tells is "death of friendship" stuff. That is what makes the film so good. It may not be historically accurate, but it rings true.

As for books about friendship, I don't know what the landscape looks like. I'm stuck reading theology. But one book of note is Hauerwas's memoir, which is a book about his friends almost as much as it is a book about himself. Or should I say, it is a book about his friendships, which give us glimpses into the kind of person he is by showing the kind of person he is as he relates to his friends and as they relate to him. Hauerwas might say that he is un-understandable without his friends. In fact he may actually have said that. I don't remember. As I like to say, creativity is forgetting where you read it.

And so to the inspiration of this post - a song about a friendship, written in the early 90's by one of my musical heroes. They don't write 'em like they used to.

do you remember our first subway ride?  
our first heavy metal haircuts? 
our last swim on the east coast? 
and me with my ridiculous looking pierced nose? 
i remember your warm smile in the sun 
the daydreaming boy without a shirt on 
the birmingham barfly father 
left the mother of three sons 
you’re the oldest juvenile delinquent bum 
my best friend

Monday, July 11, 2011


I have three drawings done by my middle nephew -- now almost 5 years old -- and given to me for my 25th birthday. The first is a monster, the second is a lion, and the third is, well, probably another monster. Luke was the artist, after all, and monsters are his specialty. The drawings consist mainly of haphazard squiggles, though there is always a central component which differentiates one work from the other. The first monster has his sharp teeth, the lion has his mane, and the other monster has his big mouth.

I imagine if I showed Luke the drawings even today he would be embarrassed by them. He is only 8 months older than he was at their conception, but his talent has no doubt developed, and his monsters and lions have probably gained all sorts of new features that he can weave together. And in ten years' time he will not even remember the kind of art he was commissioned to do for my birthday by his patron and mother. He most likely won't believe that the drawings I now have in my room are his own. He will show me the incredible monster that he just drew for his art class, and it will bear practically no resemblance to his earlier work.

But the earlier work is still his. It represents the best of what he could do at the time. He will have learned to do more skillful work, yet he could never have learned without the work which he may one day look at with embarrassment, disbelief, or laughter. The connection, the dependence of the future on the past, isn't obvious, but it's there. This he must also learn.

Me too.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Neighbours and Fences

I sit on theological fences. I wish I didn't. I wish I had a stance on every issue. I wish I had a side. But I think my wish is misguided. Stanley Hauerwas said something remarkable in his memoir. He said he isn't bothered about what he believes - he cares only for what the church believes. 

What the church believes, however, is often in tension with, well, what the church believes! In this light, sitting on fences is not necessarily a sign of indecisiveness. It is a sign that we see through a glass, darkly. It is a sign that we know in part and theologise in part. It is a sign of the time we live in - a time of incompleteness; a time with a future that will surprise us and our systems.

Perhaps what the church needs is precisely more people who sit on theological fences, who live in the tension created by what the church believes.

Incidentally, it seems to me that a lot of recent theology is done from the fence. "Third Way Theology" it might be called, whereby the author seeks to open up a third option in the Barth-Brunner debate, in the liberal-conservative dichotomy, or in the evangelical-emergent struggle for example. It remains to be seen whether this approach will tear down fences or erect new ones. Each case will be different, I suppose. The questions to ask are, Is the theologian genuinely trying to bring neighbours together? or is she merely trying to mark out a plot of land that she can call her own for the sake of academic notoriety or position? Our natural inclination toward Frost's "Good fences make good neighbours"  dies hard. I guess a primary task of the theologian is to remember that we're all playing in the same field, and the person we are playing with -- or rather, who is playing with us -- owns the field. Moreover, the fences that we erect in this field, and the fences we sit on, are temporary.

Imagining God

Garrett Green wrote in Imagining God that it doesn't matter if the exodus "really" happened. Scripture's authority lies not in how accurately it depicts "the facts" but in its unique ability to renew our imaginations with metaphors which are faithful to the kind of God God is. Scripture renders to us a "paradigmatic imagination", a lens through which we see God, the world, and ourselves in God's world. It is this seeing that constitutes religion. 

Green writes,

...religion is imaginative, religious language is metaphorical, and theology is hermeneutical.

That is to say, theology is the interpretation of metaphors that have been been revealed from the imagination of God to the imagination of God's witnesses - most significantly, the witnesses who saw Jesus as the imago dei.

With our imaginations as the locus for God's self-revelation, Green has attempted to move beyond the dualism of "fact" or "fiction", of "illusory" or "real". One of the memorable quotes in the book is the paraphrase of a sentence in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

The illusions of God are more real than the realities of men.

Obviously there are a lot of words that Green fleshes out -- imagination and metaphor to name two big ones -- but how does any of the above strike you? I can't help but think of Caird/Wright's dictum, "Christianity appeals to history, and to history it must turn" and find that what Green says is very much at odds with what these eminent NT scholars propose. Of course there is the slippery slope of moving from the exodus as something whose "real" happening doesn't matter to the resurrection as an event whose "really happened-ness" is irrelevant for faithful imagination. But then the book of Exodus and the Gospel narratives are different books with different purposes. Suffice to say, slippery slope arguments are usually red herrings.

Friday, July 8, 2011

On Understanding Bonhoeffer

I've started and re-started Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer about four times now, never getting past chapter two. I recognise it -- or at least I've been told to recognise it -- as a book I need to read, but I have felt unable to read it. There is a weight and seriousness to it that I am not used to. As I've read its opening passages, the act of merely reading it creates an unease, with the book constantly saying back to me, the reader, "You need to do more than read me".

I never understood the weight of Bonhoeffer's words, the seriousness with which he can say, "When Jesus Christ calls a man, he bids him 'Come and die'" and really mean it...literally. But having watched Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, some semblance of understanding has emerged. There is nothing special about the film, but it does give you the sense that there is something special about the life that it portrays.

In the final scene, it finally dawned on me. It finally dawned on me what kind of conviction it takes to utter what Bonhoeffer uttered in Discipleship. What he wrote always appeared so morbid to me, so heavy, that I could not handle it. So I'd put the book down. To live as Bonhoeffer urged us to live -- or rather, to die as Bonhoeffer urged us to die --  made little sense in light of the now -- the eternal now, as Brueggemann puts it. But Bonhoeffer, like all of the Christians of the past that we hold up as types or examples, imagined a future.

He stands at the entrance to a prison yard, looking directly at the hanging dock which has his name written all over it. This is his immediate future, and it offers no hope. He is ordered to strip naked, which he does while maintaining his gaze on that deathly object. "Was everything I've done, everything I've stood for, worth bringing me to this point?" he seems to ask himself. Coming towards him from behind is his interrogator, his enemy. "You tremble, pastor. Afraid?", he asks. He so desperately wants the immenent prospect of death to defeat the man who has always seemed so willing to die. "I'm cold",  Bonhoeffer replies. The SS agent is perturbed by the response, but wrestles once more for the upper-hand, for the last word: "So...this is the end."

"No" says Bonhoeffer, and with that he walks towards his death.

It is this "No" that makes sense of everything that Bonhoeffer writes. In fact it is this "No" that makes sense of everything that any Christian has ever said that is worth listening to.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two Kinds of Atheism

The atheism of imagination is a much more formidable opponent to theology than positivist skepticism because it takes religion seriously.

- Garrett Green

It's fashionable for belief in God/religion to be the punchline of many a joke these days. The thinking seems to be that if religion can be made fun of then it can't possibly be true or carry any real weight in th elife of a human being. This is why Hitchens is a more successful evangelist and apologist for atheism than Dawkins - he's funnier. He can get more laughs at religion's expense. Positivist skepticism's logical conclusion isn't the construction of a new reality free of the tyranny of religion - its logical conclusion is a never-ending joke, because it can't live without the punchline provided by religion.

But the best jokes are those which take the subject of the joke most seriously. The atheism of imagination wants to show religion to be a powerful but calamitous force in the world; it wants to expose the Future Planning Committee as the War Committee. It can taste the irony, and wants everyone else to have a sample too. Positive skepticism wants to strip religion naked and play willy banjo.

Where Green may be mistaken is in calling the atheism of imagination an opponent of theology. The task of theology can only be enriched by alternative voices who take its subject matter seriously enough to challenge it. Real opposition of theology can only be an inside job, carried out by theologians who know not what they have been given and who know nothing of the gifts that can be received from unexpected places.

The Most Insightful Review of Transformers 3 That You'll See...