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.