Tuesday, January 31, 2012

For Further Consideration:

Can we not maintain that our social action is a work of love than of hope?

- Stephen Williams

Saturday, January 28, 2012

For Future Reference

I was recently asked about the films I like the most. The only one that consistently comes to mind is Heat. In the interest of being able to answer that question with more conviction and variety in the future, here is a list of some of the films that I most enjoy.

Clear And Present Danger
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
In the Loop
Reservoir Dogs
True Romance
No Country for Old Men
3:10 to Yuma
Matchstick Men
The Dark Knight
Lars and the Real Girl
The Tree of Life
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Half Nelson
Where Eagles Dare
L.A. Confidential
The Bourne Ultimatum
Good Will Hunting
The Godfather
Of Gods and Men
The New World
Wedding Crashers
The Edge
The Social Network
The Matrix
Wall Street
The Game
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Liar, Liar
The Thin Red Line
Cast Away
The Silence of the Lambs
Meet the Parents
Red Cliff
Thank You For Smoking
A Few Good Men

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Case For Repentance

Formal apologetics debates allow "for the audience to make up their own minds about where they think the truth lies."

William Lane Craig simultaneously captures the essence of the apologetic goal, and delegitimates it as a Christian enterprise. When we present Christian truth in this way, we display our ignorance of that important word μετάνοια - Repentance. This is not a call for us to make up our own minds. This is first of all indicative of the reality that we don't possess minds that are worth making up. They are too corrupt. Repentance is a call for a change of mind, a transformation of mind, that causes one's mind to be at home in the noetic of the kingdom.

If Lee Strobel is right about us being on the cusp of a golden era in apologetics -- and I imagine he has a new book coming out arguing that that is precisely the "Case" -- then the Christian church is about to do battle with the very thing that is trying to defend it.

The spirit of Karl Barth must be resurrected as his body turns in its grave!

Friday, January 20, 2012

CD II.1 - God Does Not Exist...kind of

I would pay decent money to see a debate between a resurrected Hitchens and Barth. Maybe some day, and maybe I won't even have to pay.

Popular atheism rests on a negative answer to the question, Does God exist? If I am reading Barth rightly - and that is always a large "if" -- then Christians cannot answer that question in the way that atheism (and Christianity) thinks that they must. We do not know what existence or being is, and then try to work our way to a god who ticks this box. God does not exist in the way that a human exists, or in a way that a fairy or a leprechaun or a piece of bread exists. God does not just have being, but has the very power of being. He reveals Himself to us as the One in whom we live and move and have our being, and because He reveals Himself to us as this One, we know that He is and that we are -- not in the same way, but in a quite distinct way. For us to try and move from "we are" to "He is" without the grace of revelation is either a hopeless exercise or an exercise in idolatry

For Christians, we only inquire into the possibility of God's existence on the basis of God's making Himself known through His Word, and on the basis that the One we inquire about is not a sharer in the thing we know as our existence, but is its Redeemer, Creator an Lord.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Communities and Atonement

Theology shapes society. The habits of a family in Kilarney depend on what is written about God in Duke University. The work of theology has social consequences; and not only liberation theology or practical theology, but the kind of theology that at first blush seems utterly unrelated to the real world.

Perhaps in our secular society we think theology has lost this kind of power, but as James Beckford points out, "the deregulation of religion is one of the hidden ironies of secularization". By releasing religion from state control and removing it to the margins of society, secularization has put the Christian church in the place from which it originally turned the world upside-down. Theology has as much power as ever to effect not only societal change, but the emergence of communities that are genuine alternatives to the dominant reality.

Though it forms an aside in an incredibly bulky chapter, Charles Taylor puts forward an argument that the theology of the Reformation -- specifically, its theology of the atonement -- gave rise to the "humanist hostility to mystery", and played "an important role in the later rise of unbelief". If the irony of secularization is that it empowers counter-narratives, or re-formations in society, the irony of the Reformation is that it empowered the secularization of society. If nobody learns from history, then perhaps this is a sort of back-and-forth that will play out till kingdom come.

And what was it about this particular theology of atonement that caused it to have such dramatic social effects? It led to "horrifying conclusions" such as the doctrine of the damnation of most humans, or the doctrine of double predestination. 

What is the name of this horrifying theology of the atonement?

The juridical-penal model, or the penal-substitutionary model.

If Charles Taylor's brief assessment is close to the truth, then the hegemony that this model still enjoys signifies a failure of theology in its task of speaking correctly of God. The ones who speak of God to congregations in cities and towns and villages must learn to articulate the mystery of human sin and God's grace using language that would not be out of place in the story of the prodigal son.

Perhaps the de-throning of the juridical-penal model of atonement is necessary if Christian communities are ever to be truly alternative in a world that knows well the value of channelling violence onto some for the sake of the protection of the many. Or to put it another way, perhaps we can never have nonviolent communities without a nonviolent atonement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Volf On Violence

Religions advocate nonviolence in general, while at the same time finding ways to legitimate violence in specific situations; their representatives both preach against war and bless the weapons of their nation's troops. And so the deep religious wisdom about nonviolence boils down to a principle that no self-respecting war-lord will deny, namely that you can be violent whenever you cannot be nonviolent, provided your goals are just (which they usually are for the simple reason that they are yours). Religious dialogue or no religious dialogue, without the principled assertion that it is never appropriate to use religion to give moral sanction to the use of violence, religious images and religious leaders will continue to be exploited by politicians and generals engaged in violence. 
- Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 286

Monday, January 16, 2012

Church Boundaries Made Simplistic

Biblically speaking, the line between what kind of behaviour excludes one from church participation and what kind of behaviour does not falls somewhere in this grey area.
And even at that, the one who is excluded is so treated for the sake of his eventual inclusion.

Conclusion: Churches don't have boundaries for the sake of labelling people as "in" or "out", "saved" or "damned". Boundaries exist for the sake of holiness - the holiness of those who participate in the body of Christ and the holiness of those who do not.

The church as a holy people must make those who are not the church aware of their need for holiness. That the church as a holy people can include those steeped in such unholy professions as prostitution and banking completely confuses things.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Margin Call

"We used to make stuff in this country....build stuff. Now we just put our hands in the next guy's pocket." 
- Frank Sobotka

Margin Call comes at the problem from a different angle than season 2 of The Wire, and comes at it 8 years later too, and with far less subtlety, but the similarity of perspective is found in this fact: two of the key players in Margin Call are engineers who turned their hands to the intangible world of finance; who went from building bridges to putting their hands in the next guy's pocket. What's more, it is these two who form the moral centre of the film. That they do so and it makes perfect sense is what makes the film so compelling, if not disturbing and even flat-out wrong.

Season 2 of The Wire begins with a party-boat full of rich people that has engine trouble. They are in the shipping lane and need to be brought in to shore to fix the damage. But one of the party's hosts takes a police officer aside, dips into his deep pockets, and pays the officer to simply toe the boat out of the way of the ships so that the party can continue uninterrupted: "A lot of partying going on now and I wouldn't wanna cut it short for a little engine trouble." Metaphors right, left, and centre here.

Margin Call shows us what happens to this party when someone informs the hosts that they -- and the many people who've accepted the invitation to come on board -- are in a boat that is about to go up in flames.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Performative Before Propositional

From Moneyball to Evangelism

Moneyball is a good film, but it's real strength is as an example of a paradigm shift. The heart of the story is that "the game done change".

Against the backdrop of the dominant rationality, Billy Beane's rationality is non-rational. He trades excellent players and buys obscure players that don't fit into the present system. The Coach tries to merge the two rationalities together, but they do not mix, and Billy Beane looks like the fool that everyone thought him to be.

But when Beane's rationality is fully adopted rather than merely merged into the already existing one, the results begin to come. What is learned is that you cannot see the game of baseball the way you've always seen it, and then try to fit Beane into that picture. Your vision of the game, your perception of what makes sense and what doesn't, must be transformed.

Paradigm shifts are always resisted, but they are the stuff of life. In an ideal world, competing rationalities will not to be judged based on who has the most power to make their rationality the dominant one, but rather based on whose rationality leads to the telos, the goal.

In baseball, the goal is generally agreed upon - win the World Series. In life, however, the goal is not nearly so universally agreed upon, if the notion of a goal is even accepted in the first place.

To bring this down to the level of theology, this makes apologetics (or even evangelism) something more than what it is seen to be (though it often isn't even seen to be this) - a dialogue between competing rational paradigms whose intersections are largely trivial. Apologetics/evangelism is, at its heart, in the realm of desire and goal. If we do not want the same things from life, then the dialogue will produce more heat than light, or simply nothing at all.

This is the reason Christian proclamation to the world (and to the church) must begin with the word "repent": we say on the basis of the life of Jesus that what we want is not what is good for us, and so our desires must change.

How desires change is a question I cannot answer.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CD II.1 - Remaining a Mystery

Richard Dawkins decries religion because it makes a virtue out of the willingness to leave things unexplained. Science, however, boldly knows of no such willingness. It marches forward relentlessly, seeking to explain away everything in its path.

But not every object or event can or should be explained. It is not insufficient of religion to stop short of some explanations (which, lamentably, is something that religion often fails to do). It is insufficiently human to seek to explain everything.

Barth's theology is a theology of God extra nos - God outside of us. We do not begin with a our explanations of the universe that lead us to posit the existence of "God". We begin with the God who cannot be explained by us outside of His own revelation to us that is grasped in the obedience of faith. Any other God is no God at all. Or, anything that Dawkins' net catches isn't God.

It is not God who stands before us if He does not stand before us in such a way that He is and remains a mystery to us.

So much for 99.9% of apologetics, then. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Getting Closer to the Gospel

Commenting on the Parable of the Prodigal Son The Lost Son The Lost Sons The Prodigal God, Miroslav Volf has this earth-shattering thing to say:

...the relationship did not depend on moral performance and therefore could not be destroyed by immoral acts.

The son remained this father's son. The father remained this son's father. At least in the father's eyes. The relationship could never be earned; it was created by the grace of nature to begin with, and sustained by the nature of grace in the end.

We want moral order, we want just deserts, we want lex talionis, we want the world of the older brother. What's more, we want a cross that bends to the will of this moral order, and a Jesus whose relationship to his father did depend on moral performance. We want the revelation of a righteousness that is not only witnessed to by the law, but is achieved by doing the deeds of the law. We cannot understand "apart from the law". We do not want a world whose nature is grace, whose law is the lawlessness of unconditional love.

But the father wants to throw a party that celebrates not moral performance but the return to his gracious home made possible by his act of embrace that redefines our moral universe.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Exclusion and Embrace: The Self and Its Centre

What is a human? What behaviour is appropriate for humans? What behaviour is good for humans? Do the answers to these questions stem from our nature? Is there an immutable, original essence to a human being that determines what we are, who we are, and the kinds of things we ought to do and ought not to do?

Christians may call this essence the “image of God” – inherent to our creation is likeness to this being who is eternal and immutable, therefore who we are, what we are, and what we ought to do are questions that have eternal, immutable answers. Any contingency that exists in our self-understanding ends with God, the uncontingent one. When we peel back the layers of our history and our culture and our rationalities, we get an essence to which our stories and our cultures and our rationalities must conform. Our cultures have changed down the years, but our justice within these shifting cultures either does or does not meet the immutable standard of justice determined by God and determined in humans as image bearers of God.

Human beings do not get to make up their own essence, or essences. Human beings do not determine what they are and what they should do. As created beings we have been given an essence, and our faithfulness to God is measured by our faithfulness to this essence – faithfulness to this self that is our true nature and which goes all the way back to the beginning, to the decision of creation, to the eternal moment right before history and contingency began.

There is a problem, however. The Apostles Paul says that this self has been crucified; it no longer lives. As Volf explains, this ahistorical essence is not our centre, if it ever was. We understand what it is to be human by appealing to history; not the history of all human beings, but the history of one human being in whom all of history is judged and with whom all humans have been crucified. We may still say that our essence is our being made in the “image of God”, but we can only understand that term by the story of the Christ who is that image. Union with this Christ now determines our self, and we must know his life if we are to live as we ought to live. His life does not confirm everything we think with regards what it means to be human. He does not obey a law that we know in advance of his coming, a moral code that is inherent to our nature. We do not know what love is, and then affirm that Jesus loves. We do not know what justice is, and then affirm that Jesus does justice. The life of Jesus must shatter all of our preconceived notions of justice and love that we think are immutable, and rebuild them with his story as their foundations.

Following Jesus does not mean that he gives us the power to live a virtuous life that we know apart from him. It means to really follow him as people whose selves are not our own, not eternal and immutable, but rather dead and made alive again only insofar as they are lived in de-centring dependence upon the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. This dependency, this uncertainty and discomfort about where the living Jesus would lead us, is now our essence, our centre.

...the new centre of the self is not a timeless “essence,” hidden deep within a human being, underneath the sediments of culture and history and untouched by “time and change,” an essence that waits only to be discovered, unearthed, set free. Neither is the centre an inner narrative that the reverberating echo of the community’s “final vocabulary” and “master story” has scripted in the book of the self and whose integrity must be guarded from editorial intrusions by rival “vocabularies” and competing “stories.” The centre of the self – a centre that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, which has become the story of the self. More precisely, the centre is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Questions and Thoughts Sparked by The Beginning of Exclusion and Embrace

What does it mean to be countercultural when you are irrevocably a product of a particular cultural, still being shaped by a particular culture, and still contributing to a particular culture?

Is the directive to be countercultural not very much a part of our cultural ethos?

From what standpoint can we criticize the practices of those around us if we are in a position whereby we benefit from and even carry out those practices? Does this explain our glossing over of greed, hoarding, possessiveness, usury, covetousness, racism, sexism, elitism, militarism, and our choice instead to focus on the practices that we see ourselves are distant from: homosexuality, ignorance of God’s Word, lack of family values, promiscuity, adultery?

How does the church create distance from culture and evaluate what it is necessary to be distant from? Distance from culture is necessary for the church to be the church in opposition to the world, but how the church should be distant causes opposition within the church. In practice there is not distance but distances – some churches are more distant than others; some church members are more distant than others, or at least distant in the way that they deem right.

It seems almost foolish to talk about the church being the community of people who are empowered to embrace violent oppressors when these same communities cannot even embrace one another. The one who calls the other “liberal” cannot have fellowship with the one who calls the other “conservative”; the one who calls the other “compromised” cannot have fellowship with the one who calls the other “idealist”; the one who calls the other “fundamentalist” cannot have fellowship with the one who calls the other “progressive”; the one who calls the other “intolerant” cannot have fellowship with the one who calls the other “tolerant”; the one who calls the other “judgmental” cannot have fellowship with the one who calls the other “judgemental”. 

More than churches distancing themselves from culture to make space for the other and to judge the evil in every culture, churches distance themselves from other churches based on what kind of “others” a church accepts into itself uncritically (homosexuals, rich people, racists, pluralists etc) and what kind of evil the church does and does not judge. And these are often churches who largely agree on doctrinal issues.

It does not seem logical that following the way of the cross will lead to inclusion or embrace, though we often speak as if it is. The cross may be the outpouring of sacrificial love, but it is also the place where the one who loved in this way was abandoned by most of his friends, scorned by his enemies, and forsaken by God himself. The cross as a particular moment in history spoke only of the world’s rejection of Jesus. His being lifted up on the cross did not draw men to himself. It scattered them; sent them away smug, or disillusioned, or afraid. The crucified Jesus was alone at the height of his love. If we love in this same way, why should we expect our situation to be any different?

And yet Paul desired to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. This was integral to his gospel. He founded communities on this message. Paul and these people looked at the cross and saw something that nobody saw on the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. The saw that Jesus was not alone. They saw themselves as crucified with him. They saw God in him, reconciling the world to himself in this particular body – a body which created enough distance from the world to incorporate the world itself. This was a body offered to God as a sacrifice; a body that was so engaged in countercultural practice that nobody in the culture could interpret what was happening; nobody could recognise this moment as love.

We often think of countercultural as meaning simply that we are against certain things within a culture, but this  pure againstness is to strip countercultural of its radicality. This is to be countercultural in the way that our world allows us to be countercultural. To be truly countercultural means to be for something that the world does not know; that the world cannot interpret within its given framework; that the world cannot name when it sees it. The name of this something is “kingdom of God”.

Out of the dozens of references to the kingdom of God in the Gospels, only three are uttered by people other than Jesus, and the Gospels show us that none of these people knew what they were talking about. Jesus had to show them.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Conan at his Best

Your school motto is vox clamantis in deserto, which means 'Voice crying out in the wilderness'. This is easily the most pathetic school motto I have ever heard. Apparently it narrowly beat out 'Silently weeping in thick shrub' and 'Whimpering in moist leaves without pants.'


If Submarine has any value as a coming-of-age drama -- and it surely does -- it is this: it shows us that as we grow up, we need to receive more grace than we give. For the final scene alone I commend it, though I'd be lying if I said there weren't moments when I wished that final scene would come a little sooner.

CD II.1 - The Correct Sense of the Word

Karl Barth says that the doctrine of God is learning "what we are saying when we say 'God'". We must learn to say this word in the "correct sense". This begs the question, How are we to know what the correct sense of this word is?

The answer is the Church. The Church is first of all a hearing Church. It is a listening community, called into existence by the Word of God and then speaking that very Word out of this prior listening. 

Barth begins with the fact that "through His Word God is actually known and will be known again." If the cause is the Word of God, the effect is the Church. The extent to which the Church is really the Church is the extent to which God is known. The Church does not posses the Word of God, but is itself possessed by it, judged by it, reformed by it, redeemed by it. The Church lives by the grace of this Word in which God has given Himself to her, not for her manipulation or coercion, but for her obedience of faith. 'There is no knowledge of God outside of the Church' must be held together with 'There is no Church outside of the obedience of faith that comes from the hearing of the Word.' These are not really two statements but one.

God is not known apart from this obedience of faith; apart from the Yes that is said in response to God's prior Yes; apart from the human decision and act that corresponds to the divine decision and act. Anyone standing outside of this position cannot know God by Barth's very definition of knowledge of God, and therefore cannot talk about God in the correct sense of the word. This, for example, makes debate about the existence of God futile, because the two debaters ought to be talking about two very different objects. If they are not, then one of them is not what they think they are.

What I love about Barth is that his theology is a theology of grace all the way down. At the heart of the universe is this decision of the supreme Subject to be known as an Object by subjects other than Himself. Our search for truth comes to an end and begins afresh when we are brought into new being by this grace; when we are made part of the hearing Church that lives not by bread alone but by the Word of God.

For just as certainly as grace is truth, so certainly can truth only be had as grace.

A Secular Age: Human Flourishing

In the good ol' days, religion was everywhere. Religion was not a part of life; one's life was part of a religion which touched every sphere of a community. This is not the case any longer, and Charles Taylor explores why. According to Taylor, we live in a secular age which seeks to liberate us of our need of God, thus relegating his existence -- if he does exist at all -- to that of personal saviour, belief in whom has no bearing on public life.

Our secular age is defined by three aspects of belief:

1. The sphere of belief has shifted from public to private.
2. The prevalence of belief has diminished. We have put away childish, naive notions of a divine being.
3. The conditions of belief or the nature of belief have changed.

Taylor focuses on this third aspect, with our shift to immanence being the condition that has paved the way for the removal of God from both the public and the private sphere of life. By "immanence", Taylor means that  the question, What constitutes a full life? can be answered with reference to nothing outside of human possibility and no final reality other than human flourishing.

Though I'm only about 2% into the book, there are two things worth mentioning:

Christianity has a specific vision for what constitutes human flourishing. Many Christians in our secular age (and it remains to be seen if Taylor follows this pattern or not) talk about it as if we all more or less agree with what flourishing looks like, with religious people then going beyond that to the transcendent, or foregoing it for the sake of the flourishing of others. This may be a reality, but if not carefully articulated it is quite often a dangerous one that justifies the kind of public Christianity manufactured in the United States, the kind of private Christianity lived out by far too many churches in the West, and the kind of missions work that we then engage in. We do not invoke "God" in politics in order to legitimate our own concept of flourishing that is wholly independent of the God revealed in Jesus. We do not seek to flourish just like those around us, except with the added aspect of church attendance and the knowledge that we and not them get to go to heaven when we die. And we do not renounce our wealth in the West in order to go to the South or to the East and make them more like us. Liberation must be something other than the have-nots becoming the haves; the poor becoming the rich. If that is our goal for those who are in desperate need, then by the time we are finished with them it will become impossible for them to enter the kingdom of God, for they will be just like us.

I don't think Christians have to say that we are interested in something beyond human flourishing - that we are in touch with the transcendent as well as the immanent. I think what we have to say is much more radical: There really is nothing for us beyond human flourishing, but human flourishing is not a human possibility, and it cannot be understood apart from the God who became human in Jesus.

What "self-sufficient humanism" cannot understand is this: The foregoing is the flourishing. The relentless sharing is the possession of an abundant life. The servanthood is the greatness. The kenosis is the fullness. This is God's humanism, to use Barth's term, and it only makes sense in light of His kingdom that is being formed on earth as it is in heaven.

The irony of our secular age is that in seeking to flourish apart from the God who became human it became impossible for humans to flourish, for it is this God alone who makes human flourishing both possible and describable.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Drive - What's Going On?

A man must have a code. Omar wouldn't point no gun on no citizen who wasn't in the game. Neil McCauley would not attach himself to anything that he couldn't walk out on in 30 seconds flat if he felt the heat around the corner. The Driver in Drive would be available to whoever hired him for 5 minutes, no matter what happened in that period of time. But either side of it he is off the clock.

As is often the case, however, a woman throws a spanner in the works; the code is threatened.

The woman never hires Driver, but the central job in the film is one he is doing for her and her young son. At the beginning of the film, Driver's code operates in the context of an independent life - a life where he has to care about no one but himself. Those five minutes are the only time of interaction between him and the people he is working for. After that, he is as good as dead to them, and them to him. There is a scene where an old "employer" runs into Driver at a diner, and the employer starts talking about the old job and the possibility of another one. Driver aggressively enforces his code - the five minutes of availability were up long ago, and if the guy doesn't leave him alone then he's going to get his teeth kicked in.

And yet there is this woman and her son who need his help and are completely unaware of it; who need more than five minutes. The tension of the film lies in watching Driver's code begin to crack. The carefree life that he can live with such regiment is thrown into turmoil by meaningful relationships.

That all of this is played out with almost Terrence Malick levels of dialogue is really quite impressive to behold. The atmosphere is simmering, the action intense. Though on the surface it seems the relationship between a man and a woman is the central component, this is not necessarily the thing you end up caring for. The film doesn't leave you rooting for the two leads to get together amidst forces that pull them apart. In fact, the film quite possibly shows Driver spending as much time with her son as with her, and he says almost nothing to either of them.

So what do you end up caring about? The safety of the woman and her son is one thing, though even that is marginal. What ultimately matters is the life of the driver. The word "existential" has been used to describe the movie. His existence as subject is what matters. We see the film through his eyes. As the all-important heist goes down, we are in the car with him, waiting, seeing, feeling. And as the action comes to a crescendo, we want only for him to survive. 

His code is designed to keep him alive. But what happens to him when those five minutes are not long enough to get the job done?

This is a very good film with an exquisite sound track. It is not pleasant viewing, but it is compelling. It would hardly be high praise to say that it's the best film I've seen in 2012, but I will say this: it will take something quite brilliant to better it.