Monday, December 31, 2012

The Songs I Stumbled Upon

The older I get the less time I devote to music, both the playing of it and the listening to it. This list, therefore, is not so much about the music of 2012 as it is the music I came across during 2012, usually in films. There has been a slight shift in my taste, so if this list makes me seem more cultured and sophisticated than you, it's because I am.

The Staves - Mexico

My sister put me on to this trio. Love the video, love the harmonies, love the chorus, love the simple guitar picking. I have no idea what the rest of their stuff sounds like -- pretty similar, I imagine -- but The Staves could be getting a more thorough listen off me in the new year and even a live viewing should they return to Belfast (they played in Limelight the weekend before I heard this song). They must be excited about that.

Matteo Zingales - Martin David

Is this a cover of Moby's 'God Moving Over the Face of the Waters'? It sure sounds like it, which is no bad thing. This song plays at the end of The Hunter, and it is perfect.

Arvo Part - Spiegel im Spiegel

Part is one of two on this list who can be categorised under the genre "holy minimalism" (like I said, cultured and sophisticated.) I think I heard this song on an Auschwitz documentary and did an instant Google search to see who was responsible. Part is from the Estonian Orthodox flavour of holy minimalism (there's a niche market if ever there was one), with a lot of his songs based around these beautiful and haunting chants. This one, however, simply consists of piano and violin. It is minimal, but it is no less holy.

Yo La Tengo - Driving Home

This is probably the last band I've gotten into. This particular song is taken from the cleverly titled album You Shoot, We Score, which is an album of Yo La Tengo tracks written for various films. I first heard this at 3am in a tent full of guys in Wicklow. It was a moment of bliss in troubled times.

Henryk Gorecki - Symphony No. 3

There could be any number of songs featured in The Tree of Life on this list. Indeed there is one more to come. This one, however, is the crème de la crème. R.L. asks his mother to tell them a story form before they can remember. She mentions a plane ride she and their father once took after graduation. In fact, the whole scene is on YouTube. It still gives me goosebumps:

The song goes on, and manages to get even more beautiful. You can listen to the whole thing below.

Andrew Peterson - Hosea

My mp3 player broke during the summer, so the only portable source of music that I had for those long journeys up and down from Belfast was the phone my sister gave me, which came complete with one album: Resurrection Letters by Andrew Peterson. I have listened to that album to death. There are a number of sons on it that I like, but this is probably my favourite.

Hanan Townshend - Welcome Happy Morning

Finally, that other one from The Tree of Life. This one plays in the background as we see Jack develop his first crush, and also during the end credits. It is another simple piano piece, but as music critic Johnny Giles would say, there is beauty in simplicity.

2012: A Review

If Stanley Hauerwas is right then I may be putting my salvation at risk by acknowledging January 1 as the beginning of the "New Year". As an ex-semi-professional poker player, however, "risk" is my middle name, so that's a chance I'm willing to take.

2012 began in Maynooth. I arrived to pouring rain, which made me feel instantly at home. Kevin picked me up at the train station, and even moved the car so that I wouldn't have to step through a puddle to get into the passenger seat. Such a gesture set the tone for the next four weeks. 

Maynooth Community Church had no need of me. My biggest contribution over the course of the month was helping at Friday night set up, which involved setting out chairs and readying the sound system for Sunday morning. These were not tasks for which a year and a half of Bible college was absolutely necessary. I imagine my placement was supposed to look different given the, ahem, elite training I was bringing to the table. I was supposed to hone my skill set and increase my competence for ministry, but instead I was ministered to right from the start. 

One of the refrains in a Brueggemann prayer is "You give and we receive." I was given so much that January, and all I really did was receive it. I wish I did more in response. If a Christian community is constituted by gift and reception, then I was definitely far more often on the receiving end than the giving end. It didn't occur to me at the time, but the dynamics of the placement were turned on their head. MCC didn't need me, but I needed MCC.

That, it turns out, was what I needed to learn: I need a local church. My salvation depends on it. The question remains: what is the church in light of the truth that we need it not only to obtain salvation, but to work out salvation's content? That the local church is more determinative for the history of the world than Dail Eireann or the White House is not a fact gleaned from objective experience. It is a fact of faith, if you will. In truth, I haven't had much faith in it. But slowly I am learning where the power of God is at work in the world. The first month of 2012 provided a glimpse at this power.

My final semester of second year was a busy one. I worked hard and left little time for play. Not to be vague or anything, but in light of the previous three semesters I made some decisions and surprisingly I actually stuck by them. I don't know if they were the right decisions or not. My transcript will probably back me up, but there is more to life than results...or so I'm told. Indeed that's probably what I'll end up telling myself after this first semester of final year, because I'm quite certain I didn't do as well as before. Maybe it's the fact that I spent most of the summer studying, but for whatever reason I couldn't quite keep up with the pace which I had set for myself. The motivation -- even the capacity -- to stay studying till the library closed at 10.30pm just wasn't there. The phrase "resting on your laurels" was used on more than one occasion, and I'm sure it's at least somewhat applicable. 

To put a more positive spin on things, this semester has been about going deeper into previously explored territory rather than furrowing lots of new ground. The furrowing can wait until next year's dissertation, when I'll be writing about second century apologetics  second century social ethics  second century ecclesiology  second century church/world relations  ecclesial identity formation in the second century  something to do with Christianity in the second century.

Like any Bible college student worthy of the name I did a few camps during the summer. They were three of the best weeks of the year. I got to be a scholar in residence at one, I got to share one of my testimonies (I'm postmodern like that) at another, and I got to coach football at the third. In fact at the football camp, let it be known to my readers that what is called the "nutmeg" in Ireland and the UK or the "panna" in most other parts of the world became known as the "Declan" for one week in Finaghy. Just to prove that the kids weren't misguided, in a recent football game I nutmegged Declaned the same guy twice with successive touches of the ball. The only problem: as much as the kids want to learn, you just can't teach that!

My procrastinated step into adulthood took a turn for the better when I passed my driving test in October. It didn't seem likely in September. It didn't even seem likely an hour before the test, when I was stuttering through my final lesson in torrential rain. That was actually the first time I had driven in crap conditions, so I just wasn't used to it. Then, lo and behold, about 5 minutes before my test was due to begin the rain stopped, the clouds broke, and I was greeted by that rarest of Galwegian sights: the sun - that beautiful big orange ball that makes things like cars and road signs easier to see. I made up some speed limits for the tester, guessed the make of car I would be driving (correctly, thank God), and took my accuser for a 25 minute drive around West Galway without bumping into anything important. I could have kissed him when he told me I passed, but I figured twice in the one day and he'd get suspicious. It was only in the last week or so that I've actually driven since becoming fully licensed, and I have to say - it feels good. "Watch out for the fool" says my father, passing on the advice his father gave to him. I haven't seen any fools yet, which has led me to coin my own piece of advice? If you can't spot the fool after half an hour in a car, then you are the fool.

I visited friends, made some new ones, watched Denis Suarez in the flesh, cried in front of my church, ate salad, took a long walk on a beach with another man, heard a very special lecture by Dr Charlie Hadjiev, scored my first and only goal for BBC football team, met Desie Alexander, started going to a church in Belfast, walked down Donegall Pass with a sign saying "I hate Protestants", went to the Giant's Causeway (underwhelming, and definitely no more than a few thousand years old if you ask me), played this brilliant game from South Korea where you throw four pieces of wood into the air and judge from other people's reactions whether you've done it well or badly (I'll figure it out for myself eventually), began a table tennis match in which I am 2-1 up in sets but losing 4-3 in the fourth set (with a set being the first to 5 games and a game being the first to 21 points), bladed (as one of my housemates calls roller-blading) and ice-skated, got given a banjo so that I can turn every church song into something that sounds like Mumford and Sons, went on a tour of the Tayto Factory, heard the music of Dmitri Tiomkin performed in the National Concert Hall, attended my two cousins' weddings (emphasis on the plural), and wondered about the future.

Where all this leaves me I don't know. I approach 2013 with less assurances than I had a year ago. The truth, however, is that they were never really assurances in the first place. John Milbank talks about the economy of gift, which involves a radical embrace of contingency. John Howard Yoder names and criticises our deep-seated desire to grab hold of the "handles of history" so that we can secure ourselves against contingency and make history come out right. Another name for this grabbing of the handles is "idolatry". I have desires, dreams...I may even have a plan or two. But if a class on Ecclesiastes has taught me anything, it's that I am not in control. That is not a justification for inaction. Nor is it cause for fear. Quite the opposite. To live out of control is to live in complete trust of the One in whom we live, move and have our being. 

Trust and obey. Obedience may work or it may not. It is not given to us to ensure which way things go. There are no assurances, no givens, apart from God. And when the Infinite is the only given, who can tell what is in store?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My Year In Film

Top 5 (in no particular order)

Killing Them Softly

This guy wants to tell me we're living in a community? Don't make me laugh. I'm living in America, and in America you're on your own. America's not a country. It's just a business. Now f***** pay me.

Seeing this film was not always a pleasant experience. There were moments of awkward squirming, and one particular scene when the violence was too much to take in - brutal, remorseless, prolonged. But the film left an impression on me that has been hard to shake off since.

Killing Them Softly is interspersed with audio clips from the 2008 presidential race in the States, which is a not-so-subtle way of letting us know that it has a message. Repeat: it has a message. But this obviousness is contrasted by reasonable subtlety in the dialogue, the above quote being a glaring exception to the rule.

It is a tragic work, a tragedy embodied in James Gandolfini's despicable and pitiable character. But it is not without its funny moments (the sawn-off shotgun bit), and it has a heist scene that is as good as any out there - full of the kind of tension that makes you unable to breathe or blink.

This was, in short, a classic cinematic experience.

The Hunter

I wonder if she's the last one. Alone. Just hunting and killing. Waiting to die.

I've seen this film three times since August, which is as much a compliment I can pay to it. For a story that spends a significant amount of time following a lone hunter around the Tasmanian wild it packs an emotional punch that I didn't expect. Of course it doesn't hurt that I'm big fan of Willem Dafoe, and have been known to waste away hours studying the lines and contours of his face. Indeed this film attaches a story to that face which is probably more believable than the real story. Willem Dafoe is -- I mean, really is -- the hunter. It just makes sense.

There is nothing ground breaking about the film. It has no outstanding feature that sets it apart, save for the Tasmanian landscape. What it does have is a simple story told without fuss. It is the story of a human's journey towards humanness, which, like it or not, must involve other humans...and virtually extinct animals, but mainly humans And with that sentence, I have made it sound like the biggest pile of crap since Friends With Benefits (see below). Perhaps this clip (which, admittedly, will make little sense without any context attached, but which still has Bruce Springsteen playing over it) can redeem things:


This is what happens when you take a big, expensive camera to Asia and start filming things. Is it pretentious? Postmodernly racist? Possibly, but it is also, at times, stunningly beautiful. It's probably not worth watching this at home, but over the course of 100 minutes I began to realise why God invented the cinema. There are no words in this film. Just images and music to to tickle your aesthetic sensibilities. If Arsene Wenger (at least Wenger circa 2008) were to make a film, it would probably look something like this. Make of that what you will.

Margin Call

John Tuld: You're one of the luckiest guys in the world, Sam. You could have been digging ditches all these years. 
Sam Rogers: That's true. And if I had, at least there'd be some holes in the ground to show for it.

From a film without any words to a film full of them. This isn't so much a movie as it is a re-enactment complete with retrospective analysis. How did the financial crisis happen? Who were the kinds of people that were involved? How did they attempt to get out of the mess? These are some of the questions for which the film provides answers.

What it really provides, however, is a a forum for Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons to strut their considerable stuff. And strut it they do in a film that flew under the radar but which is now available on Netflix America if you download a program to change your i.p. address sure to come to Netflix Ireland in the coming years.


Hello James, welcome. Do you like the island? My grandmother had an island when I was a boy. Nothing to boast of. You could walk along it in an hour. But for us it was paradise. One summer, we came for a visit and discovered the whole place had become infested with rats. They came on a fishing boat and gorged on the coconut. So how do you get rats off an island? My grandmother showed me. You put an oil drum in a pit and hinge open the lid. Then you coat the lid in the coconut. The rats come for the coconut and plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink; they fall into the trap. Then what do you do? Throw it in the ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it. And then one by one...They start eating each other until there are only two left. The two survivors. Then what do you do? Kill them? No. You release them into the trees. But they will not eat coconut anymore. Now they will only eat rat. You have changed their nature. The two survivors, this is what she made us.

Cool bad guy: check
Attractive bond girl (who was killed off disappointingly early): check
Puns and quips: check
Q: check
Deadly opening sequence and credits: check

This is a Bond film not without its problems, but it is the best one I've seen since GoldenEye. It is -- as opposed to the previous one -- unashamedly Bond most of the time. Indeed it seems that one of the film's purposes was to restore what was lost to the franchise in Quantum of Solace; a sort of setting Bond back on track. This it did, and it did so while thoroughly entertaining me for over two hours. I grew up watching the 'Bond season' on Network 2 on Tuesday nights (when there was no Champions League), so I've always had a soft spot for the Don Juan-ism of James Bond. This film, while at times skating dangerously close to explaining away that Don Juan-ism, restored my fondness for the series and has made me look forward to the next instalment.

Bottom 5


This was a mess of a movie. That it starred Shia LaBoeuf should be evidence enough to convict it, but even a young Robert DeNiro in his place couldn't have rescued Lawless from being anything but terrible. As I said before, there is a scene with a Mennonite pastor chasing Shia LaBoeuf with a burning stick. That tells you everything you need to know about the levels of thought that went into the making of this.

Avengers Assemble

Billions of people enjoyed this film. They're all wrong.

To make me bored during a comic book film is no easy feat, but that's exactly how I felt about a third of the way through this cash cow. Right now I have lost my faith in comic book films, with The Dark Knight being the shining exception that proves the rule. Next year's Man of Steel can either confirm me in my apostasy or cause me to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

Friends With Kids

One of the taglines for this film went as follows:

Love, Happiness, Kids: pick two.

Don't you just hate when your children get in the way of either your love or your happiness?

This film aims -- in a quirky, clever, funny-but-serious way -- to explore that stage in life when children interrupt pre-existing relationships. I'm not quite at that stage yet, but I'm going to assume that it exists. Children do indeed make a difference, after all. This film, however, tries to get around that difference. The main couple (who are two friends with absolutely no feelings for each other whatsoever) decide to have a child together, but also to allow themselves to have relationships with other people. That way they get to have love, happiness and kids. Will it work? It's hard to say. Did I care? Not a jot. Did I laugh? Maybe once, but it was a laugh ridden with guilt.

This was like an extended episode of How I Met Your Mother, except worse. Yes. Worse. Far worse. I know.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I had no love for this film when I first saw it. I haven't seen it since, but I imagine I would be a little kinder after second viewing. It was bad, but it wasn't boring. Still, it was bad, not least of all when judged by Hitchcock's dictum the better the villain, the better the film.

J. Edgar

The pre-film meal and company couldn't save this from being a thorough disappointment. Rotten Tomatoes has this at 44%, which sounds about right to me. What should have been a fascinating insight into a key figure in recent American history was anything but fascinating. It was instead shapeless, unsure of what story it was trying to tell. John Puccio says it best:

Hoover may have been the sweetest, kindest, gentlest man in the world, or he may have been a ruthless bastard; we wouldn't know from Eastwood's cautious portrayal of him.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Since It's Christmas And All

My Christmas present to you, dear reader: not one, not two, not three, but three quotes from Karl Barth, weaved together here as an Incarnational Medley, and a very special Christmas reflection. Probably best to open with the reflection.

Last night I decided to read a passage in Luke as my Christmas text. It is a text about the birth of Jesus, a moment to which the Scriptures testify, though in veiled form. Some people came to visit him, bringing along some gifts fitting for the occasion. As they came to the place where he was supposed to be laid in swaddling cloth, helpless and humbled,  there were some heavenly creatures hanging around, bearing good news. The good news? "He is not here." Surprise, confusion. He was supposed to be here. He belonged here. This was the place in which he must be sought. The glorious creatures answered the confusion with a question: "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" The cloth was there all right, but there was no body.

At the beginning, few expected a messiah to be born into a poor family in a stable. At the end, nobody expected a failed messiah to be anywhere but in a tomb. Jesus was never where he was expected to be. But here, on the first day of the week, at dawn, he was where he said he would be. He was no longer in the tomb, no longer wrapped in swaddling cloth. He was risen, the firstborn from the dead, burning hearts as he unveiled the Scriptures, opening eyes in the eucharist, making peace through the blood of the cross, and gracing the old world with the presence and power of the new.

The Word became flesh. And the flesh became resurrected.

God for his part is God in his unity with this creature, this human being, in his human and creaturely nature – and this without ceasing to be God, without any alteration or diminution of his divine nature....We must be able to show that God is honoured and not dishonoured by this confession.
God does not have to dishonour himself when he goes into the far country, and conceals his glory. For he is truly honoured in this concealment. This concealment, and therefore his condescension as such, is the image and reflection in which we see him as he is. His glory is the freedom of the love which he exercises and reveals in all this. 

How should God’s divinity exclude his humanity? For it is God’s freedom for love, and therefore his freedom to be not only in the heights but also in the depths, not only great but also small, not only in and for himself but also to be with another who is different form himself, to give himself for this other, since there is room enough for it for community with humanity.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Hollow Victory

Our Man in the Pews is a blog written by someone who can write. That someone is Philip Sasser, writing for Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing. He writes about issues of faith from a Southern context, and what he writes is effortlessly readable.

In his latest post, he puts his finger on a key aspect of the relationship between church and state:

It is a hollow victory that Christians gain when they convince judges that the municipal display of nativity scenes, crosses, and other accoutrements of the faith do not violate the Constitution. To do so requires arguing that religious imagery is so neutered by history and cultural familiarity that it no longer means much of anything at all.

Where once the nativity scene threatened the powers that be to the point of brutal infanticide, it has now become a reminder of how we have emptied the incarnation of all its power to the point where the powers can allow its re-enactment without feeling the slightest sense of threat to their legitimacy. This is not so much Civil Religion as civilized religion, religion with manners. A hollow victory indeed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Power of a Carol Service

Stanley Hauerwas says that the church doesn’t have a social ethic; rather, the church is a social ethic. John Howard Yoder describes the ethical task of the church in the world simply as the church needing to be the church. What these statements mean became clearer to me today. I was studying in the university library, listening to the sound of a mint swirling around in my mouth and construction work on the adjacent building, when somewhere outside the walls music started seeping through. I didn’t know where it was coming from, and its sound was faint at best, but I was curious. I left the library to pick up some lunch in a nearby shop, and on my way there I heard the music again, this time louder and with its source finally apparent – the cathedral. I wanted to go closer to see what my ears were hearing, but I decided to stay on track, pick up my traditional ham and cheese sandwich, and return to the library.

Yet as I listened to the music fading into the background, it struck me: this is what the church – and only the church – has to offer the world. A carol service is not just a tip of the hat in the direction of the real meaning of Christmas. It is a social ethic, a way of being in the world that only the church knows, because the church knows Jesus. This, as Walter Brueggemann has said, is a profoundly artistic way of being. The organ and the choir were resonating out into the world from the cathedral, infusing the ordinary with a moment of sacredness, a glimpse of something bigger. They were witnesses to a different world, interrupting the prosaic nature of life with a poetry and rhythm that is beautiful – and because beautiful, attractive. Incarnation names this interruption at one particular moment in history. Church names this interruption at every moment in history since, with the church being, in Barth-speak, the crater remaining after the explosion of the gospel.

Of course there must be more to the being of the church than music. The conservative would like to remain worshipping in the church, but the liberal knows that true religion consists of caring for the widow and the orphan. The prophet knows this too, for our worship services without the commitment to justice are empty sounds before God. No matter how artistic our worship services are, if we have not love, we are nothing.
Yet the music, the carols, and the stories they tell have a power outside of ourselves. A worship service is a dangerous place to be. It is even dangerous to experience it from a distance, as I did from the library. Someone might see and hear and think “Surely God is in this place.”

Social ethics and worship, it turns out, are not two things but one. The church that sings “Oh Come let us adore Him” is thus extending an invitation and committing itself to its distinctive mission – the invitation is to come and see and experience the beauty of the form of Christ; the mission is for the church to be transformed into that same form: a transformation that begins in worship and which, ultimately, ends in worship.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Coming Soon

It's approaching that time of year when my blog becomes interesting. In 2012, I decided to keep track of every film I've watched by rating them all on IMDB. This year I've watched 88 different films so far, some of them multiple times, and most of them made before 2012. My aim is to give you a top 5 from the 2011/2012 crop along with a bottom 5, and then to mention some of the greats from the past -- recent and not-so-recent -- that I've only seen for the first time this year.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Anointed One

Here is a tremendous quote to, ahem, mull over during Christmas:

The royal psalms depict the kingdom and office of the anointed one according to his – still hidden – divine glory (von Rad)...In the OT this glory concealed itself more and more – until in appears most darkly veiled. 
K. Koch

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paul Among the Moral Philosophers

Occasionally, as a Bible college student, I get to read and think about the Bible. ("Is he serious? Is he joking? I can't tell." Neither can I, friend. Neither can I.) In our ethics class last week I said that "law" has nothing to do with Christianity. I probably shouldn't have said that, mainly because it's almost definitely not true. But one of the reasons I did say it was because of these letters that Paul gave us that say stuff like "against such things there is no law." Life in the spirit is, in some sense, lawless, even though it is a life that fulfils the law.

Another passage that seems to back up my wild statement is 1 Corinthians chapter 6. There, Paul quotes the Corinthians (who may have been quoting a saying of his own) when he writes that "All things are lawful for me." This was the Corinthian justification for their dalliance with prostitutes. In light of this, we might expect Paul to say "Actually, no, not all things are lawful for you, and sleeping with prostitutes is one of those things." He doesn't. Twice he repeats the phrase "All things are lawful to me", and twice he (implicitly) reaffirms its truth. Paul, the man who has become all things to all people, will not budge on his insistence that, to paraphrase Zizek, if Christ has been raised from the dead then everything is permitted.

If we want to think of Paul as a sort of moral philosopher, we therefore cannot think of him as a proto-Kantian who set out to formulate maxims that could become universal laws. Can we think of him as a utilitarian? Perhaps, though in such a severely qualified way that it will render the description almost meaningless. Paul's first response to "All things are lawful to me" is "But not all things are helpful." His second response is "But I will not be dominated by anything." These words "helpful" and "dominated" are given content in the proceeding verses - content which centres around Christ and membership in his body.

For Paul, sleeping with a prostitute is not helpful because it is out of step with the particular telos of life in Christ. Being a member of Christ's body means being conformed to a concrete shape, a peculiar form. To become a member of a prostitute's body is to be de-formed. This is related to Paul's desire not to be dominated, for Paul's understanding is that what dominates us is what shapes us. When Paul says that he will not be dominated by anything, he almost misspeaks, however. Yet if he does misspeak, he puts things right only a few verses later when he says that "You are not your own; you were bought with a price." The key ethical question for Paul, then, is, who is creating us? Who is forming us? Which is another way of asking, who is our master? Who is the one we are imitating?

I was wrong in that ethics class. Law has everything to do with Christianity...provided it is understood that Christ is the telos of the law. If Paul was indeed a moral philosopher, his reasoning began and ended with the person of Christ and the call to be a member of His body. Ethics for Paul named the imitation of Christ, manifested in the life of the church by the power of the spirit and to the glory of God.

One consequence of this is that we don't tell people how to live like Christians, which usually takes the form of rules and laws. We show them with the hope that they will imitate us as we imitate Christ.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sex and Human Nature

Earlier this year, Alain de Botton wrote a piece on Marriage, Sex and Adultery. In it he says this:

...contrary to all public verdicts on adultery, the real fault might consist of the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshy reality of our bodies, a denial of the power that should rightly be wielded over our more rational selves by such erotic triggers as the surreptitious pressing-together of knees at the end of a restaurant meal, by high-heeled shoes and crisp blue shirts, by grey cotton underwear and Lycra shorts, by smooth thighs and muscular calves -- each a sensory high point as worthy of reverence as the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach's 'Mass in B minor'. Wouldn't the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

In other words, the desire to have sex with someone who is not your wife or husband is with the grain of the universe. David Simon -- the man who created The Wire and who is therefore pretty much always right about everything -- expressed a similar opinion in a recent post about the reaction to yet another high profile figure caught with his pants down...although he expressed it in slightly more colourful language:

This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people.

According to Simon, to be a person is to be, by nature, adulterous. In one sense, what de Botton and Simon express is a form of Christian anthropology which takes with utmost serious the doctrine of the Fall. Nature, as we now have it, is depraved. Unfaithfulness is one of the givens of creation. To somehow be impervious to this fact of nature would be inhuman, which is why, according to de Botton, such a person probably shouldn't be trusted. They would be, in some way or another, unnatural.

Nevertheless, in the end of his piece de Button praises this unnaturalness:

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. 
That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which both ought to feel grateful every day. 
Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children, and should feel proud of their valour.

As congenial as this sounds to a Christian understanding of marriage, the language of "sacrifice" that de Botton uses to praise those who remain faithful is a language that Christians cannot accept without significantly different understandings of its content. If monogamous marriage is a “sacrifice” it just so to the extent that it is the relentless giving over of self to another which is in harmony with the true form of God and the true form of His creation. It is not, as de Button suggests, the foregoing of adultery for the sake of “love” or “children”. The faithful life of one man and one woman together is therefore not a “sacrifice” of one thing (the natural) for another (supernatural) but a sign that in and through Christ the natural has remained loved and called by God and is in the process of being made new. Faithfulness, not unfaithfulness, is with the grain of the universe.

De Button and Simon begin -- as Zizek would also like to begin -- from The Fall. But that is not where the Christian story begins. It begins, rather, with Deus triunus and with creation as an expression of the divine life. And in another sense, it begins again at Easter, when God raised Jesus form the dead.

"The glorious fleshy reality of our bodies" is not revealed by the high-heeled shoes and smooth thighs of a woman who is not my wife, but I am sleeping with her. Nor is the human person on display when a penis or vagina staggers off the marked path. We have, however, been given a form that is truly human - the form of Christ. The marriage relationship is one of the ways we have been given to imitate that form. As Stanley Hauerwas says, we have to learn how to be human. Human nature does not come naturally to us. It is a grace. But with God, nothing is as natural as grace, which is why we can have hope even in the midst of our greatest infidelity.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What It Means to be a Christian

In A Dialogue Between a Theologian and a Lawyer, Stanley Hauerwas was asked this question:

What does it mean to be a Christian? Is it a community of practice? A community of faith that believes in certain things? Do you think you can be a Christian or claim to be a Christian if you really don’t believe in the faith but you believe in the community?

His answer is, well, the kind of answer you'd expect from a high church Mennonite:

Well, I’m not one to take my subjectivity that seriously. The idea that I might know whether right now I am exhibiting deep faith in God, I wouldn't have the slightest idea and I don’t find it interesting. The question is: What do my enemies think? I always say one of the most important questions you can ask a theologian is “Where do you go to church?” because the liturgy is central to the intelligibility of the language we use. So I am not that impressed by justification by belief. It seems to me that the Protestant focus on thinking that you need to believe very hard that God exists and therefore that makes you a Christian shows a kind of desperateness that fails to indicate that what it means to be a Christian is to be embedded in practices that are so determinative you cannot imagine that God has not redeemed the world in Jesus Christ. And that sounds like a belief, but it is much more embeddedness in a whole language and community that exemplifies the language that makes our lives intelligible.

Hauerwas's answer flies in the face of Protestant wisdom. The subject that Hauerwas cares about is not the individual but the church. He is not much interested in what Stanley Hauerwas believes or doesn't believe. He is interested in what the church believes, i.e., what the church says and does, with his own life intelligible as "his own life" only as part of that particular community.

This would be an interesting understanding of Christianity to bring into an Irish context, where there is sometimes a tension between evangelicals who have a personal relationship with Jesus and their Catholic family members who don't seem to care too much about what they do or don't believe about God but who know that being part of a local faith community is good for their souls.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Abortion, Wealth, and Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is one of those books that I don't know what to do with. Indeed, it's one of those books that the church doesn't know what to do with, as its truncated appearance in the lectionary testifies to. Of course "All Scripture is God-breathed", but some of it is more God-breathed than others. Actually, breath might not be a bad description of Ecclesiastes, with this being one possible translation of the Hebrew word hebel - breath, wind, absurdity, transitory, vanity, meaninglessness. We find Ecclesiastes absurd, and so we ignore it, or use it -- like law -- as the foil for the gospel.

But what if this book is useful for training in righteousness? What if the Teacher has something to teach us? More specifically, what if he has something to teach us about wealth and abortion? The Teacher says this: It would be better to be an aborted child than to lack nothing except the ability to enjoy anything. In other words, as wrong or as cruel as we think abortion is, the aborted child is better off than many of us who think that abortion is wrong and cruel. This doesn't make us wrong about abortion, but it does make us wrong about the kind of life that we want children to call "good", the kind of life that it is worth not being aborted for. It is not our life of relentless, insatiable acquisitiveness, but a life capable of enjoying the gifts God gives, which include children.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Those Who Ignore History

To paraphrase Verbal Kint, the greatest trick the Enlightenment ever pulled was convincing the world that the past doesn't exist.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Monks, Clocks, and Capitalism

In (I think) Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek talks about the power of capitalism to absorb everything into itself so that even that which was once anti-capitalist can be transformed into that which sustains capitalism. His example is environmentalism, which has now been embraced by capitalism with the creation of a new market that deals in green products etc.. 

Two weeks ago I linked to a post in which the relationship between marriage and capitalism was under the microscope, with the latter absorbing the former into its logic. If you thought that was a bit weird, then read what Neil Postman has to say about the relationship between clocks and capitalism:

The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. "The mechanical clock," as Lewis Mumford wrote, "made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product." In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favoured the latter.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Virtue of Virtue Ethics

If it's done nothing else, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has given me the ability to understand why this paragraph by Sam Wells gets ethics rights:

Virtue ethics puts habits in the place where commands used to be. Let's take marriage for example. Rather than saying 'Do not commit adultery', it says 'eat together every evening.' With eating together every evening, somebody has to go shopping, somebody has to prepare the food, somebody has to clear up afterwards, somebody has to say every single time: 'Should we put flowers on the table?' When the phone rings: 'Shall we answer it?' Every single gesture is actually building up a marriage or reducing it. Every single time you must decide to arrange food on the plate or to dump it down in front of your partner. All of those things can be done with care and love, they can be done punctually or they can be done aggressively. If you get eating together in the evening right, you've got a marriage. Even if you don't commit adultery, there are a hundred other ways to destroy a marriage. You might not even notice that your marriage is falling apart because, you think: 'We kept the rule so it's not our fault, I haven't chased anybody.' Living virtuously becomes about developing a habit, in this case, what it means to eat together every evening.

The Non-Truth of Self-Evident Truth

The great thinkers and speakers that I know have at least one thing in common: they keep repeating themselves. Their sayings and stories become like the classic tracks of an artist, which, while perhaps reinterpreted or redeveloped in new performances, will forever remain constitutive of who they are. What Like a Rolling Stone is to Bob Dylan, The Prodigal Son is to Jesus, or the Niels Bohr story is to Slavoj Zizek. In other words, continual originality is overrated.

Stanley Hauerwas is another who repeats himself. One of his classics is the track America is the only country that is founded on a philosophical mistake. That mistake? The concept of inalienable human rights. Alasdair MacIntyre calls it a "pseudo-concept" which we have as much reason to believe in as we do witches and unicorns. The reason he has no time for it is this: there are no self-evident truths.

I probably agree with Hauerwas and MacIntyre, but my question is this: How do we know that it's true that there are no self-evident truths?

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Things I've Read

Blogging is so much easier when you just read the stuff written by other people and post it on your own blog.

Reformed Christian theologian Kevin Hargaden wrote two excellent posts on some of the liturgical symbols of the modern state: the flag and the poppy. With these symbols citizens remember the dead and hold onto eschatological hope. The church, however, has been given different symbols. We've been given bread and wine to remember a different kind of death/dead and a different kind of hope. 

Perhaps the problem with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland -- if I can be so bold as to begin a sentence like that -- is that it doesn't remember that we've been given these symbols. I'm currently attending (?) a Presbyterian church in Belfast, and have worshipped in Presbyterian churches in the past on roughly ten Sundays. As far as I can remember, not once did I participate in communion during those services. If the church is to resist the narrative of violence that underlines the state's authority and makes our subservience to it intelligible, we can do little more than to remember what we've been given.

Jordan Mattox has written a good piece on Pete Rollins and the movement he is associated with. His conclusion is on target:

Like the new age movement, Rollins movement seems a perfect fit for the guilty and anxiety-ridden liberals. If he wants to break from the system, I am not certain that the answer will be found in theological therapy of this kind. Theology then becomes a way to deal with the anxiety of being human and that is not the telos of Christianity.

Which brings me back to Kevin, who can be quoted as saying that what Ikon and its kind need to do is read more Karl Barth. Rollins's aphorism that to believe is human, to doubt is Divine is, at best, self-serving. At worst it is how not to speak about God. Basing your doctrine of God on Jesus's cry of "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?" is like basing your justification of violence on Jesus's clearing of the temple. The words and the action need to be seen as part of a much larger narrative that tells the story not of doubt and fear and -- never far behind -- violence, but of faith, hope and love.

Finally, Daniel Kirk posted this on his blog. If you are what Hauerwas calls "an animal that has learned to pray", then do please pray as I consider what my next step is going to be.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Out of the Mouths...

Theologians and their corresponding children's songs...

Karl Barth:

Jesus love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

John Howard Yoder:

He's got the whole world in His hands.

Stanley Hauerwas:

I may never march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I'm in the Lord’s army

Richard Hays:

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had father Abraham
I am one of them, and so are you
So lets all praise the Lord

N.T. Wright:

Who's the king of the jungle?
Who's the king of the sea?
Who's the king of the universe,
and who's the king of me?
I tell you J.E.S.U.S.

Charles Hartshorne:

Every move I make I make in You

John Wesley:

I've got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart

Monday, November 5, 2012

Modern Marriage Through a Marxist Lens

Over at the Political Theology blog there is a post on marriage that is worthy of your internet time. It's message is this:

Marriage functions, within capitalism, as an instrument that reproduces the conditions of production.

Now there's a sentence to suck the romance and excitement out of marriage if ever there was one. Mattox is not pessimistic regarding marriage qua marriage, however. The climax of his argument is this:

Marriage is not the problem, but when it becomes a replacement for the promise of salvation and the community of the Church, it threatens to destroy our souls.

One implication of this is that far from high divorce rates indicating a decline in the "value" or "sanctity" of marriage, they are actually an indication that our culture has too much faith in marriage. When one particular marriage doesn't deliver on the promise to save us from meaninglessness or loneliness, we have obviously married the wrong person and therefore must try again, otherwise we forfeit the possibility of salvation and risk dooming ourselves forever. Marriage is too valuable and too sacred for a bad one to be tolerated. But as Mattox says, all of this places a weight on marriage that it cannot bear.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Christians on TV

When Rachel Held Evans goes on American talk show The View to discuss her book about how the church does and ought to do biblical hermeneutics (or to laugh at how zany the Bible can be sometimes), is a Christian carrying out her role as witness to the world or is this little more than a profit-grabbing book promotion? Or worse, have we made it intelligible for the one act to accomplish both?

When Anthony Thiselton is brought on The View to discuss New Horizons in Hermeneutics then perhaps I won't be so sceptical.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Joke Made Possible By Bible College

A few guys in the house were talking about beating me up for being a nerd, so in order to defend myself I picked up a copy of Barth's commentary on Romans to use as a shield. One of my friends then points at it and says "He's got a bomb!"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Another Definition of Postmodernity

Postmodernity is what happens when modernity recognises that it's a tradition, and thus dissolves itself. 
- Phillip Cary

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Meaning of the World

From one Swiss theologian and pastor talking about the book of Job to another, this time Wilhelm Vischer. He was in fact Barth's pastor at one point, which I imagine couldn't help but be daunting. Nevertheless, his essay "God's Truth and Man's Lie" displays a Barth-esque flair and form that makes me think there were no feelings of inferiority, but only a shared vision for what this task of expounding the Word of God is all about: Jesus Christ.

Anyway, here is the gist of what Vischer sees as the (true) theology operational within the Book of Job:

The relationship between God and man cannot and may not be based on profit. To be sure, a man may attempt to misuse God to his profit. But how could a man be "worth" anything to God? The Almighty has no need for insignificant man. And yet he has created him and marked him out above all other creatures as though creation were designed for him, as though man were the goal and meaning of the whole creation. Why and for what purpose does God want to have man? If man can be of no profit to him, then God must have a deeper aim. Then it must surely be nothing other than that wonderfully incomprehensible delight which God wills to have in and with this man. Thus Job understood God and the meaning of his own human life.

The essay ends on a similar note: is not purpose nor profit but God's free, joyous goodness which is the meaning and ground of the world and of all creatures which live in it. The speech of God in the Book of Job proclaims it in matchless brightness in answer to the dark speculations of the human heart.

Precisely this joyful tidings is the answer to the question of the whole book. The question was posed from Heaven: "Does Job fear God for nought?" The attempt to answer it has become a counter question of Job to Heaven: "Who are you? What are you? my God. Are you, as the/ friends preach, the God of law, of rewards and punishments? Or are you my friend out of incomprehensible goodness and pure fidelity, precisely and wholly for nought?"

 One thinks of the Father's declaration as Jesus is baptised:

This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Characteristic of the life of God is not law or economy, but pleasure and delight.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Because even on Sunday it's good to read Barth

- "He's in God's hands now."
- "He was in God's hands the whole time."

This short exchange between a comforter and a griever is from The Tree of Life. It captures masterfully the essence of the book of Job, which is the tension between trust in God and the experience of a form of God that brings such trust into question. "He was in God's hands the whole time" is equal parts declaration of assurance and accusation. And as accusation, it carries more weight than anything Ditchkins can throw God's way. As Barth explains:

Surely all ancient and modern sceptics, pessimists, scoffers and atheists are innocuous and well-meaning folk compared with this man Job. They do not know against whom they direct their disdain and doubt and scorn and rejection. Job does. As distinct from them, he speaks en connaissance de cause. They can easily enter into controversy with a God whom they do not know as their God. Job cannot do this. He can curse the day of his birth. But he cannot curse God. He cannot separate himself from Him.

If Zizek can say that only an atheist can be a true christian, then perhaps we can turn that around and say that only a christian can be a true atheist.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Virtue Ethics, Orthodox Style

What is distinctly Christian about a Christian virtue ethics is that its telos is described in unequivocally Trinitarian terms. As Vigen Guroian states, “the aim of virtue is itself participation in the Divine Life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” The Good is God, for as Jesus says, only God is good. Increase in virtue therefore names an increase in our participation in God’s life; a participation, it must be said, that can be explicitly named or not named by those who participate. In other words, a participation possible for those who do not yet confess that Jesus is Lord. This is not to propagate Rahner's theory of "anonymous Christians," as if some Muslims or atheists are really just Christians unbeknownst to themselves; rather, it is simply an implication of the reality that God is the One in whom each of us live, move, and have our being.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Ineffectiveness of Riches

For the church to be effective in the world, it is thought that she needs power and money. Let's call this the Scarface mentality: First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women converts. Of course it is seen as good that church has poor people in it. But it is seen as necessary that the church would have access to wealth, or be made up of people with influence in society; or rather, people whom society has deemed influential. It is, after all, from such people that the church derives its efficacy in the world.

The Old Lady (who represents the Church) in The Pastor of Hermas would disagree. Here is a subversive second century quote for our age:

For as a round stone cannot become square unless portions be cut off and cast away, so also those who are rich in this world cannot be useful to the Lord unless their riches be cut down. Learn this first from your own case. When you were rich, you were useless; but now you are useful and fit for life.

If you are rich, you are useless to the Church as a rich person. Indeed, within the above analogy, you are a stone that will not fit into the building and which must finally be rejected.

Yikes! Good thing the Pastor of Hermas never made it into the canon, eh?

Monday, October 1, 2012

TULIP - Football Style

One of the biggest rivalries in football is about to take its years of bitterness and hatred onto the pitch this week: Belfast Bible College play Union Theological College in the first round of matches in the Belfast SuperLeague

Since Union trains people for ministry in the Presbyterian church, I thought I'd stir the pot by coming up with Presbyterian-related football puns. Feel free to add your own.

Total (Depravity) Football
Unconditional goalkeeper protection
Limited opponent
Irresistible pace
Perseverance of the feints

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Barth on the Character of Evangelical Theology

In its perception, meditation and discussion, theology must have the character of a living procession....[T]heology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight in contrast to the bird in cage....Regardless of what the gods of other theology may do, the God of the gospel rejects any connection with a theology that has become paralyzed and static. Evangelical theology can only be and remain in vigorous motion when its eyes are fixed on the God of the gospel.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Old Testament Nonviolence?

Rather than spending my time nailing what my dissertation will finally be about, not to mention actually writing it, I like to think of all the other dissertations that might be worth doing. The latest I've thought of is a dissertation on nonviolence in the Old Testament.

Pacifism as practiced by Christians is by and large seen as flowing out of the New Testament, but can a nonviolent strand be found in the Old Testament? Reading the story of Moses suggests so. Moses is transformed from a violent freedom fighter to a man armed only with the word of Yahweh. If there is a climactic speech in the book of Exodus, it is surely this call to pacifism:

Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.

Israelite nonviolence was grounded on the conviction that their God would fight on their behalf. In fact it is this same conviction that grounds nonviolence in the New Testament, with the definitive place of battle no longer the Red Sea but the cross. It is here that God has fought for his people and shown himself to be victor by dealing with his enemies in a new way.* The Egyptians are no longer excluded, but embraced.

Apparently there is a book on this subject called The Old Testament Roots of Nonviolence, so I may just have to check it out. Ah...distractions.

* Strictly speaking you might not say it's a new way, since God has always been the kind of God who desires to embrace his enemies. The book of Jonah is but one of several Old Testament stories that portrays God as this sort of God.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Lawless, Not Flawless

Rotten Tomatoes is not always right when it rates a film highly, but it is generally right when it doesn't. Lawless is indeed at best 64% of a film (5/10 on my critical scale, though even that might be generous). Roger Ebert described it as the kind of film that has women in it because, well, it's good to have some women in a film. Their roles, in so much as they have roles, simply consist of not being men. They serve no other discernible purpose.

The real problem for me, however, is the role of Guy Pearce. The film is confused about what it is he's actually trying to do as a federal agent, so all we're left with is him doing a random string of despicable deeds to make us hate him. Think Colonel Tavington from The Patriot - a role written solely so that we can see the character get got in the end. That may work for a film that doesn't take itself too seriously. It doesn't for a film that does.

If it's a story about bootlegging you want, then Homer vs  the Eighteenth Amendment, not Lawless, is the place to go.

ps - There is a scene with a Mennonite pastor chasing Shia LaBoeuf with a burning stick. That tells you everything you need to know.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Creation of Modernity

I had one of those moments today when you read a paragraph that puts into words something you've been trying to think about. In this case, it was the disconnect between work and "the rest of life" (a disconnect that, admittedly, I haven't directly experienced in a few years). A Christian remedy might be to approach work with a good attitude, to see even the menial as a chance for grace, to "do everything as if working for the Lord". That is surely no bad thing, but that ought not to be the end of the story. Beneath the surface there is a deep socio-cultural issue that can't ultimately be fixed with a smile. In truth, I can't even begin to imagine how it might be fixed.

...the kind of work done by the vast majority of the modern world cannot be understood in terms of the nature of a practice with goods internal to itself, and for very good reason. One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household. So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household in turn sustains. As, and to the extent that, work moves outside the house and is put to the service of impersonal capital, the realm of work tends to become separated from everything but the service of biological survival and the reproduction of the labour force, on the one hand, and that of institutionalized acquisitiveness, on the other. Pleonexia, a vice in the Aristotelian scheme, is now the driving force of modern productive work. The means-end relationships embodied for the most part in such work -- on a production line, for example -- are necessarily external to the goods which those who work seek; such work too has consequently been expelled from the realm of practices with goods internal to themselves. And correspondingly practices have in turn been removed to the margin of social and cultural life. Arts, sciences and games are taken to be work only for a minority of specialists: the rest of us may receive incidental benefits in our leisure time only as spectators or consumers. Where the notion of engagement in a practice was once socially central, the notion of aesthetic consumption now is, at least for the majority. 
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virture, 227-8

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross

To say that Glengarry Glen Ross is profane is to say, quite literally, that it is outside of the temple. Actually, given its subject matter you could say that it is inside the temple, except it is inside as the money changers and salesmen that ought to be kicked out.

There is nothing redemptive about this film. Its moral compass points only to "Whatever it takes to make a sale", and as such it is a ruthless depiction of capitalism at its purest. The performances are outstanding(as you'd expect from a cast containing Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin) and the script is razor sharp, never more so than in a quite magnificent, scenery-chewing turn by Alec Baldwin as the despicable exemplar to which these salesmen aspire...even as they hate him.

I imagine it's very difficult to like this film, at least in the way one might like, say, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. But boy does it make for a gripping way to spend 90 minutes.

The First Exercise

A Slavoj Zizek quote destined to find its way into one of my essays for a Psalms and Wisdom class with Charlie Hadjiev this semester:

...the Book of Job can be counted as the first exercise in the critique of ideology in the entire history of humanity.

Unfortunately, as Dr Hadjiev might point out, we don't actually know how 30% of the book ought to be translated!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Irony

One of the recent struggles I have is to avoid being a Protestant liberal. A part of me wants to adopt what Scot McKnight calls an "ironic faith", which usually takes the form of either doing church with like-minded people or distancing oneself from church in order to be closer to Jesus and neighbour. But the better part of me resists, eventually deciding that an "Omega Course" for exiting Christianity and "giving up Christianity" for lent are stupid ideas. The Chip Monk --over at Living Gently in a Violent World -- has written about this phenomenon as it pertains to Greenbelt, a festival about which I know very little. I do know that the slogan "where faith, arts and justice meet" annoys me, but it could be worse - it could have additional, tortured post-evangelical buzz-words-with-no-content like "narrative" and "community" in there too. Unfortunately, they do make it into the Vision, which involves "reimagining the Christian narrative for the present moment." What is this? Have our business-like churches today outsourced art and justice and imagination to festivals like Greenbelt and The Wild Goose (The U.S. equivalent)? It's as if a deal has been struck, with the church taking the unwanted-but-necessary-role as exclusive, closed defender of orthodoxy while cool festivals and organisations get the enviable role as open-inclusive-diverse-edgy communities of faith and love and justice and music and all that stuff normal, rational people like.

Anyway, I'm ranting about something I know little about, and, admittedly, something I find intriguing as well as annoying. What I really wanted to do was point out an irony at the heart of this ironic faith movement. Slavoj Zizek could be seen as a post-evangelical ally, an intellectual figure who justifies an ironic stance towards traditional Christian belief and practice. Not so.

…if there is an ideological experience at its purest, at its zero-level, then it occurs the moment we adopt an attitude of ironic distance, laughing at the follies in which we are ready to believe – it is at this moment of liberating laughter, when we look down on the absurdity of our faith, that we become pure subjects of ideology, that ideology exerts its strongest hold over us.

Post-evangelical might just be another way of saying "out of the frying pan and into the fire."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Recalling Total Recall

In a desperate attempt to shed the reputation I have among Maynoothians for only appreciating Lithuanian art cinema, I saw Total Recall last night. I haven't seen the original film, so I have no idea how they compare. I imagine Arnie was more convincing in the role of a man struggling to remember things, what with that being his natural demeanour in front of a camera. Whatever about his wooden acting abilities, however, in the action movie genre he had a presence few can match - Terminator I and II being definitive proof of that. Colin Farrell should feel no shame in Schwarzenegger's shadow, if that is the case.

As for the film itself, the best thing I can say about it is that it wasn't boring. That may sound like damnation with the faintest of praise, but for films of this kind I generally don't expect much more than that. Of course films can (and perhaps should) aim to do more. Seeing the rain relentlessly pouring down in the dark city streets couldn't but remind me of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, a film with similar elements to Total Recall  (both are based on works by Philip Dick) but with far superior depth and impact (the scene with the Immortal Game followed by the creature confronting its creator is chillingly good). Where Blade Runner follows through on its convictions (perhaps at the cost of initial appeal and revenue), Total Recall backs away, leaving the woman with three breasts standing out like a sore thumb. What we end up with, in effect, is a simple chase movie that forgets about the stuff that made it potentially interesting. Since I'm a sucker for a chase movie I can get by (I enjoyed U.S. Marshals, for flip sake), but only just.

I also couldn't but think of that other Colin Farrell film based on a Philip Dick story (is this becoming a niche genre?): Minority Report. Total Recall pales in comparison to that work, but that didn't have to be the case. The elements are just as interesting; the executions, however, are light-years apart. One can only speculate that if this were the original Total Recall film, no one would deem it worthy of a remake, except maybe to right its wrongs.

One final point. Slavoj Zizek has noted the increasing absence of sex in Hollywood. For example, where James Bond would traditionally bed the female protagonist at film's end, the latest -- and crappiest -- adaptation had no such moment. Zizek sees this airbrushing out of sex as part of some liberal ideology, but I'm not entirely sure what he's getting at. Still, Total Recall, if you want it to be, is more evidence that he may be on to something. Apparently a sex scene between Farrell and Beckinsale was shot (by her husband, no less) but it never made the final cut. The most that Total Recall can accommodate in a film starring a Hollywood hunk alongside two Hollywood beauties is a short, awkward kiss between Farrell and Biel. Since this is hardly the puritanisation of Hollywood, what else might be going on here?*

* Paragraph not to be confused with a demand for more sex in films.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Possessive Sense

In Dependent Rational Animals, Alsadair MacIntyre says "we are our bodies". In the singular form I can put that as: I am my body (which, unbeknownst to me till about 3 minutes ago, is the title of a book by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel). There is a linguistic problem here, however. Namely this: to what does the "my" refer? Surely the thing/being itself -- in this case, the body -- cannot possess itself. A tree, if it could talk, could rightly say "These are my leaves", but it could not say "I am my tree". In the same way, a body cannot say "I am my body".

"I am my body" is in fact a self-refuting statement, because it says that there is something else to which that body belongs -  a higher self that can intelligibly say "my body". More accurate, if this is your line of thinking, is to say "I am a body" or "I am this body".

Indeed, if this is true, then perhaps we can't even talk about "my hands" or "my thoughts" (nor can the tree talk about "my leaves"). Hands don't belong to this body, at least not in the same way that the notepad in which I first wrote all this crap down can be called "my notepad". These hands are a part of me - they participate in my being. I am not hands, but neither do I have hands; rather, hands (and other things together) constitute this body.

"My" can of course do different jobs. We can say "my car" and "my God", but the difference in meaning is (or at least ought to be) far greater than God merely being substituted in for car.

I'm not really sure what I'm getting at here, if anything at all. This may be nothing more than pedantry at best or idiocy at worst. Or maybe it's the other way around.

One point to possibly salvage this is the connection between our (over- or mis-)use of "my" and Jesus as non-possessor; non-possessor even of his equality with God. Our identities are too often formed by the amount of things or people we can put after the word "my" (in the possessive sense). Yet if even this body cannot be called "my body" (and St Paul confirms as much when he tells me my body is not actually mine), then what else do I mistakenly think I own or seek to own? Unlike Jesus, we have a tendency to consider everything and everyone as a thing to be grasped. But if divinity itself is not to be grasped, how much more is everything else beyond our reach? Which is another way of asking: what have we got that we did not receive?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Friendship

You don't know who someone is until you know why that someone is who they are. Which is another way of saying that history reveals the present. The good of marriage is that it gives someone the time to get to know another's history, and in getting to know it they are bound to love them. Indeed this is the good of that relation of which marriage is a subset - friendship. Friendship is not merely the sharing of interests or a sense of humour. It is the sharing of the contingencies that make us who we are. What this means is that constitutive of friendship is nor first of all sameness but difference; not expedience or convenience but the time and care necessary to tell and create a history.

In our so-called global village, however, friendship has been re-constituted. Since we don't have time for history, and since we often find ourselves in places where no one knows from whence we came, it is the superficial that binds us with another. Young people go to college and re-invent themselves, and leave after four years without a self worth remembering. 20-somethings travel around the world to find themselves again, but more often than not they only find themselves without a friend, surrounded by people as selfless as them. The existential quest for self as undertaken in our culture is doomed to fail, because it is undertaken by first of all severing oneself from one's roots, when in fact it is only deep rootedness in time and space that gives one a self in the first place.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Bolt From My Imagination

- All right. Here it goes. You can do this. You've been training your whole life for these moments. Remember, the race is already in the bag, but you're running a different sort of game.

- Should I do a new pose or stick to the classic?

- Just go with the flow.

- What flow?

- Fine. Go with the classic. They love that one. Whatever you do, just make sure you look natural, at ease, in total control. You could even try talking to the woman at the starting block before the race begins.

- Really? Wouldn't that come across as a bit sleazy, or at least unprofessional? And what would I even say to her?

- I dunno. Just make it look like you're chatting her up. No one will hear what you say, so as long as you speak with a cheeky grin on your face the crowd will make up their own version of the conversation and you'll be a legend. I guarantee it. The men will wish they were you. The women will wish they were her.

- I could ask her is she enjoys her job...

- No! Too boring. You'll ruin the illusion with that sort of talk. Tell her you'll see her after the race, and that you'll be the one holding the gold medal. Yes, that'll do nicely.

- But I don't want to see her after the race.

- Don't worry about it. You won't have to see her. I've got your post-race plans all mapped out.

- Aw man. Do I have to?

- What do you mean "Do I have to?"!? This is all part of who you are. Once you've won the race, I think a few press-ups might be a nice touch. Now, can you do one-armed press-ups? Actually, no, strike that. We don't want this looking like the paralympics. A few orthodox press-ups will suffice.

- I'm not sure about this...

- Trust me. After the press-ups there'll be some staged photos. I've inquired about you showing the world who impressive you look fully naked, but that will have to wait. The usual pointing and flexing will have to do for now. After the media have their shots, however, I want you to take one of their cameras!

- Well, I do quite like photography. Maybe I can take some nice shots of the other runners.

- That's not exactly what I had in mind. I've arranged for a swimsuit model to be in the front row seats of the stadium. Your job is to find her, take her down to the track and start doing a photoshoot with her. I've asked the authorities if she can be semi-naked at the time, but apparently that can't happen.

- Semi-naked!? You do realise I've never seen a naked woman before?

- Relax. She'll have some clothes on. All you have to do is snap a few pictures with a confident, "I'll see you later" look on your face. Let the people create their own story about who she is, what you have and haven't seen, and what will happen later.

- So...what is going to happen later? I'm kinda tired and looking for an early night tonight.

- Yeah, that's not gonna happen. You remember the Swedish volleyball team that we bumped into yesterday?

- I do. A very pleasant group of young women I have to say. In fact -- and I know this sounds silly -- I had a little crush on the captain. We talked for a few minutes and she seemed really interesting and funny. I was actually thinking about contacting her before the Games are over. You know, see if she wants to go for a coffee or something. What do you think?

- Really? Well you can put this childish thoughts to one side for now, because I have something far better lined up. No thanks required, but you're going to be spending the night with not one, not two, but three of those volleyball babes! We did ask the captain to be one of those three, but unfortunatelyshe declined. Still, three Swedish bombshells in your room. The press will report it, the public will love it.

- But...wait...what? You're telling me I have to have a foursome!? No...just, no. That's not me. And I can't believe you asked the captain to join in. What must she think of me now. Oh god.

- Calm down, okay? You're overreacting. I'm sure she was flattered. Any woman would be. And if she wasn't then that's her problem. And of course you don't have to, you know, do anything. Just make sure you're seen entering the room with the girls. Imagination will do the rest.

- Can we play Settlers of Catan once we're inside and away from the cameras?

- I'm not sure they know that game.

- I could teach it to them.

- Sure. Whatever you want.