Monday, December 23, 2013

Films of 2013: A Review

2013 will not be remembered as a vintage year for films (nor will 2012, now that I think of it), says the man who has yet to see most of the films that are tipped for Oscar success. For example, I have not seen Gravity, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Philomena, along with a couple of others (The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave) that have yet to be released this side of the pond. But that's enough about what I haven't seen. Here are some of the best and worst films that I've watched in the cinema over the last twelve months.

The Good

Side Effects

Smart, stylish, scary, pace, power, movement - these are some of the words Alan Hansen would use to describe Steven Soderbergh's thriller if he was a film reviewer. The story concerns a woman (played by Rooney Mara, whose Ain't Them Bodies Saints just misses out on a top 4 spot. Only room for one Terrence Malick film on this list, and I've gone for the one directed by Malick himself) whose husband has been jailed for some form of financial illegality. He (played by Tanning Chatum) returns to her from prison pretty much the same man, but she is an entirely different woman, depressed to the point of being suicidal, and prone to a very terrifying dose of sleepwalking. In her desperation she turns to a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes for her some new-fangled drug that has just come on the market. Things take a turn for the worst, however, and it is left to an increasingly desperate and dishevelled Jude Law to sort out what is actually happening.

Side Effects is a thriller that is genuinely thrilling, full of twists and turns and all sorts of other sharp movements. The performances are brilliant, especially that of Mara. Another Oscar nomination would not be out of the question, because she is so very convincing in an extremely demanding role. If you can access the U.S. version of Netflix, then I recommend giving this a watch over Christmas. Nothing says Christmas like a psychological thriller, right?

Princesas Rojas

Unfortunately for the Galway Film fleadh, the dates of this year's festival coincided with the best weather this country has seen since that famous summer of 1995. That would certainly go some way towards explaining the poor attendance at the matinee showing of some highly rated Lebanese shorts. Yet on a Friday afternoon, there was a surprising number of people packed into a small screen to watch Princesas Rojas (Red Princesses). Perhaps they knew what was coming.
This, as far as I can remember, is a Costa Rican/Venezuelan production. The story revolves around two young sisters whose parents are revolutionaries of the Nicaraguan/Sandinista variety. This is a family in perpetual motion, with no permanent home and none of the settledness that children are thought to need for healthy development. The children are often in danger on account of their parents' political activity, yet it is not the film's desire to show us how bad or wrong it is for children to "suffer" because of the convictions of parents. What we see is simply the way things are, as seen through the eyes of children who know of no other life, and who are indeed in some ways better off because of their own.

Films like this are made or broken by the acting of the children. In this case, the two girls undoubtedly make the film, with performances equal to or even surpassing of Hunter McCracken's in The Tree of Life. Watching their story unfold I found myself not looking on these sisters as a parent or an adult might, but looking on them as a comrade, feeling the things that children feel and adults, for better or worse, repress. This is not like watching cute kids perform at a talent show. This is like watching an old home video of yourself, and remembering what it was like to be you at the time. Of course my parents were not nor have they ever been political revolutionaries - they are Christians, after all! - but I (and many others) do know what it is like to sleep next to a sibling while parents talk about grown-up things in another room, to move home and school, and to be self-excluded from particularly Catholic rites of passage (in the film, it is interesting to see the atheists and the evangelicals side-by-side, with one of the most memorable scenes involving the oldest daughter's first experience of that act we call "prayer").

This is, in short, the best film I have seen this year. I felt every minute of it: the struggles and the joys, the adventures and the sacrifices, the loves and the losses. It did not leave me warm and tingly. It left me moved as I witnessed the sheer vulnerability and contingency of a child's life.

To the Wonder

It was never going to be as good as The Tree of Life. Few films have been or will be. This film has been described as the B-side to that masterpiece, and it comes hot on its heels, with only two years between it and The Tree of Life. Safe to say the Malick is no longer cutting hair in a Paris, then. Instead, he continues to cut most of the stars out of his films! There were quite a few big names who were supposed to appear in this, but didn't make the final edit. We are left with four characters played by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem. Affleck plays Neil, the largely silent male lead who falls for a woman in Paris (or gets a woman in Paris to fall for him) and eventually brings Marina (Kurylenko) and her daughter back to Oklahama where they can live happy ever after...until her visa expires.

Rachel McAdams plays a hometown girl named Jane whose daughter has died and who in her vulnerability also falls for Neil. Neil, however, struggles to commit to either woman. Javier Bardem's Father Quintana has, in some ways, the opposite problem. He has obviously committed his life to the service of God and his people, yet he is no longer in touch with the desire that carries this commitment forward. While Neil sucks up the love given to him by Marina and Jane, but refuses the commitment that they desire of him, Fr Quintana offers his commitment yet feels no love in return. On one side of this film there is desire without commitment. On the other side is commitment without desire. Can these two meet?

This is perhaps Malick's most metaphysical work, even more "abstract" than The Tree of Life. He really goes to town on the voiceovers, which riff on the nature of love and spirituality and all those grandiose themes: "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You've brought me back to life." Having a priest as a main character also gives Malick the chance to be, quite literally, preachy. Yet To the Wonder is also perhaps his most intimate film. The love and spirituality that is talked about is, in reality, never abstract at all. It concerns such things as visas and pastoral visits. And as for the "preachy" accusation that has been levelled at Malick in his last two films, these no doubt come from people who don't know anything about the beauty of good preaching, because they don't understand the nature of a conviction. The fear of commitment that haunts Neil evidently haunts those who review films. Father Quintana captures it well in yet another Malickean sermon borrowed from the thought of Kierkegaard (see The Tree of Life for the first one):

We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.

With The Tree of Life and To the Wonder Malick has really committed to a particular vision of life, one that rightly or wrongly might be labelled "religious". Malick does not provide a soothing opium for the masses, however. Malick's religion is a way of seeing life that rests on the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. To the Wonder captures the delicate and mutable nature of this way of seeing with craft, care, and something else that begins with "c" that is a synonym for "beauty".

* Its 40-something percent on Rotten Tomatoes makes a lie of my theory that RT cannot be trusted with its good ratings but can be trusted with its bad.

Fast and Furious 6

It turns out that you don't need to have seen the other five to both understand and enjoy this feast of action. Aside from being tremendous fun, this film has given me some classic Vin Diesel lines that I pull out occasionally, robotic voice included: "That's the deal, take it or leave it"; "Some things you just have to take on faith". Memorable scenes include a quite preposterous car-chase (involving an army tank) on a bridge and, unsurprisingly, another car-chase, this time on a 500 mile runway (involving a plane).

Honourable mentions: Mud, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Bad

Anchorman 2

I am one of those people who think that Will Ferrell is at his best when consigned to a cameo appearance in an Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughan film. In other words, yes to Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, no to everything else Will Ferrell has been in (with exception of The Campaign, whose first three words - "America. Jesus. Freedom." - provide a more hearty laugh than all the words of Anchorman 2 put together). With Ferrell, less is more. Unfortunately, Anchorman 2 gives us more and more of Ferrell's loud and stupid comedic sensibilities. Don't get me wrong. Loud and stupid can be funny. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is a favourite comedy of mine. Anchorman 2 (like the first one) is more When Nature Calls than Pet Detective, however. It is, quite simply, an appalling film on every level imaginable. Let me count the ways.

Steve Carell's "Brick" was the surprise package of Anchorman. Here he is reduced to a caricature of a caricature, kinda like Joey in later seasons of Friends. They've grabbed hold of the dial labelled "quirky and random" and twisted it to 11, giving us an especially painful romance story between him and his female counterpart (Kristen Wiig). Their dialogue goes something like this:

Carell - Do you have dreams about homosexual bears eating candy floss?
Wiig - Yes. Do you like drinking iced tea out of a shoe?
Carell - Yes [touches woman on the shoulder and runs away a la Napoleon Dynamite]

Comedy gold, right? And then there's the bit about Brick thinking his shadow is a black person following him! There is a wit to Harry and Lloyd's stupidity - "John Denver's full of s**t, man". There is none of that here. In Anchorman 2 the stupidity is just annoyingly offensive, or offensively annoying. Take your pick. I took my nephew to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and during the film he turned to me and said "This is the best movie in the world." If I took him to Anchorman 2 I can imagine him turning to me and saying "Can we go watch something a little more high-brow, like Daddy Daycare?"

Of course far be it from Brick to hog all the inanity for himself. There is a joke about an Australian being hard to understand, which gives us the very tired line from Burgundy: "Does anyone speak Australian?" Not to compare Anchorman 2 with Dumb and Dumber again, but here is another comparison with Dumb and Dumber: "Austrian? G'day, mate, Put another shrimp on the barbie." As Brent says of Finchy's jokes, "his work," whereas Neil's (nor Ron's) don't.

Then there is the rehash of the fight scene from the first film, except this time with extra cameos! People have asked me not to "spoil" this scene, but I honestly don't know what can be spoiled. The only thing redeeming about it is that it signalled that the film was coming to an end. That this absurd contrivance was the climax of the film is indicative of its complete lack of plot, a lack which in this case is a sure sign of laziness. Ironic, given the amount of work that has been put in to promoting the film. Perhaps the makers know what they are doing. Better to work hard at promoting a bad film than to work hard a making a good one. The former is no doubt much easier than the latter, and will prove far more lucrative. As DVDs become more and more obsolete, cinema is everything. They are not so stupid, after all.

If all of this sounds like the bitter ramblings of a self-styled contrarian, then that is probably exactly what it is. Disliking the first Anchorman definitely puts me in the minority. Disliking the second seems to leave me in the same place, though I have a feeling that with Anchorman 2 time will not be as kind to it as it was the first. I saw it with two friends who loved the first one. They hated the sequel more than I did. And judging by the amount of laughs it got in the cinema, there wasn't much love for it from the general audience, either. Perhaps it is like a bad stand-up comic. See him at night time when you're just out for a good time and you and everyone else will find yourself laughing along to jokes that don't deserve your money or attention. But see him in the cold light of day and all you're left with is a strange air of depression and a strong desire for the curtain to fall as you wait for funny moments that never come.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

I wrote about how bad this film was before. It is still that bad, if not worse. The only positive from it is that it got me to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Its 87% rating on RT is nothing short of a global scandal.

Kick Ass 2

Another sequel in my bottom 5. Like the other comic-book film that I saw this summer, Kick Ass 2 was nothing if not boring. The novelty of the first one has worn off, and all we are left with is uninteresting characters committing acts of violence. Jim Carrey was right to distance himself from this film, but for the wrong reasons. Gratuitous violence is the least of its flaws.

Man of Steel

Something I wrote in last year's version of this post:

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.

I can no confirm that, when it comes to comic-book films, I am an atheist. I no longer believe in them. If I am ever to watch another one, God himself will have to appear to me and vouch for it. Otherwise, I'm just not interested in adding my 10 Euro to the billions that are being made from these bloated, insipid cash cows.

Gangster Squad

This is partly one of those "What could have been?" films that isn't so much bad as disappointing. But make no mistake about it - it is also bad. What happens when Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone make a 1940s gangster film? Nothing that I can remember. Everyone appeared to be phoning it in, seemingly resigned to the mediocrity of the project. L.A. Confidential this ain't.

Dishonourable mentions: Elysium, Flight

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Coming Soon - Films 2013

I had a minor disaster happen to me during 2013. For some unknown reason, the film ratings on my IMDB account were wiped during the summer. What did Star Trek: Into Darkness score out of 10? I'll never know. Did I really see Frozen Ground in 2013? I have no proof. Since losing my meticulously recorded data I haven't really kept track of what I've watched from that point on. Once bitten, twice shy. This means that I'll have to rely on that most outdated of devices for knowledge of the past: my memory.

If anyone knows of another website that performs a similar function to IMDB then I'd be glad to hear of it. Otherwise I may resort to a spreadsheet for 2014. For now, however, I will be using impressions and feelings to talk about the films I've watched, as opposed to rational, scientific facts. As Joe from Reservoir Dogs once said, you don't need proof when you've got instinct. Unfortunately I have neither, but I'll see what I can do come Monday the 23rd.

Knowledge if Overrated

The difference between theologians and old-fashioned 19th century rationalists like Richard Dawkins is that when Dawkins holds forth on God, he doesn't know what he's talking about, but doesn't know that he doesn't, whereas when theologians talk about God they don't really know what they're talking about, but know that they don't. 
- Terry Eagleton

The philosopher knows eternal truths; the prophet knows the univocal sense of what will come (even if he delivers it only through figures, through signs). The apostle, who declares an unheard-of possibility, one dependent on an evental grace, properly speaking knows nothing. 
- Alain Badiou

Sunday, December 8, 2013


"How did you and mom end up getting married?"
"Uh, she wanted to."
"You didn't?"
"Well I figured, 'what the hell?'"
"Were you ever sorry you married her?"
"All the time. Could've been worse."
"You must have been in love? At least at first?"
"Never came up."

That's the piece of dialogue that will launch my ship towards the cinema this week. Nebraska here I come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Man of God, Man of Bloodshed

"After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: 'I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do." 
- Paul, Acts 13:22 
“Get out, get out, you man of bloodshed, and worthless fellow! The Lord has returned upon you all the bloodshed of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. And behold, you are taken in your own evil, for you are a man of bloodshed!” 
- Shimei, 2 Samuel 16:7-8

 David - a man after God's heart, a man of bloodshed, or both?

There was an article in the Guardian recently about the tension between the work of artists - the art - and the artists themselves. It was written in the light of the court case involving the front-man of the Lostprophets, Ian Watkins, who has pleaded guilty to various forms of sexual abuse of children. HMV subsequently took Lostprophets' albums off their shelves (though they continue to stock Garry Glitter albums, apparently).

(As an aside, I couldn't agree less with Giles Fraser's response to the Ian Watkins case, in which he completely butchers the Christian tradition for the sake of sounding radically postmodern. To think that evil can be explained by the mechanisms of existence-in-history is not to deny evil any metaphysical value, but to make of it a positive component of metaphysics, a part of the totality. This is precisely what Christianity refuses to do.)

For a more theological example, Exhibit A is John Howard Yoder. There are some who cannot or will not read Yoder. The sins of the artist are visited upon the art.

What, then, of many of the Psalms? Are they tainted, because their author was a homicidal adulterer, a "man of bloodshed"? Or does Psalm 51 wipe the slate clean?

A critical reader of the Bible could be forgiven for thinking that David gets an easy ride, both from the Church and from the authors of the Bible itself. Consider the opening of 1 Kings, where the author sounds like an apologist for Bill Clinton by emphasising that David did not have sexual relations with that woman - the virgin they used to keep him warm. Are we supposed to say "Well done, David! See, he's not so bad."? A cynic might say that the reason he didn't have sex with her was not because of his new-found moral fortitude, but because, as we are told in the first verse, he was "very old".

Indeed such a sceptical view towards David gains further credence in the next chapter, as we hear David's final words. If 1 Kings 1 sounded like a snippet from the life of Bill Clinton, 1 Kings 2 sounds like a snippet from the life of Michael Corleone. David's last act is a hit list, given to his son and successor Solomon. To paraphrase the passage, David says to Solomon "I'm dying, and here's the people I'm taking with me!" One of those people, it should be noted, is Shimei, the man who had the temerity to call David a man of bloodshed. How dare he! David, of course, promised that he wouldn't kill Shimei. Since he is a man of his word, he does the decent thing and hires Solomon to do the dirty work for him.

This, remember, is David, the putative "man after God's own heart," and crafter of some exquisite Hebrew poetry and song.

I wonder, do those who cannot read Yoder find David equally problematic? Or perhaps those who do read Yoder find this man of bloodshed difficult to read? I have heard the "jar of clay" defence, which is a sort of riff on "hate the sin, love the sinner" except this time "hate the sin, read the sinner's work". Though not at all what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians, this may be a good way approaching the issue. Virtue does not always accompany the virtuoso. And who, after all, can cast the first stone? That may leave some people deeply unsatisfied, however. A forgiveness that amounts to business as usual appears to mock the victims by benefiting the vicious.  David's words are sung with gusto and piety; David's prey are forgotten, or used as pawns to illustrate the nature of a flawed genius. At present, I am not sure if I am one of the "unsatisfieds" number.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Criticising the Critics

The Invention of the Biblical Scholar by Stephen Moore and Yvonne Sherwood makes for tremendously fun reading. It is a critique of biblical criticism from within the world of biblical criticism, so it is informed and self-deprecating, pulling no critical punches. Here is a good example:

...our quarantining of the biblical-critical from the homiletical has not occurred without cost. Most obviously, our obsession with method has made for a mountainous excess of dull and dreary books, essays, and articles: here, first, in numbing dry detail is my method; now watch and be amazed while I apply it woodenly to this unsuspecting biblical text.

I would love to read a similar book, written instead from within the world of theology. Does any such book exist?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

First and Foremost

This sentence uttered in Barack Obama's Thanksgiving speech demonstrates that the work of Stanley Hauerwas cannot be ignored by Christians. It is a sentence (and a sentiment) that Hauerwas has challenged throughout his life as a theological ethicist:

This tradition reminds us that no matter what our background or beliefs, no matter who we are or who we love, at our core we are first and foremost Americans.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games

That post-film analysis involved an analogy with the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle is cause for concern. Indeed if I had to see another conflicted "teenager" steal a kiss I may have been left with no choice but to throw my eye balls at the giant screen in a hopeless act of defiance against "the system". Instead, I left the cinema feeling that most strangest of things: satisfaction.

Perhaps the "difficult" films I watched in the last week set me up nicely for a good ol' adventure. Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives was, as the title suggests, unmerciful. I had to look away from something that is supposed to be looked at more often than I'd like. Shane Carruth - dubbed by Peter Bradshaw as "the materialist Terrence Malick" - also released an unmerciful film this year - Upstream Color - though it is unmerciful for different reasons. In short, I would struggle to muster up the will to watch either film again. Not so with Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Not since Princesas Rojas have I been as caught up in a story. It is surely no coincidence that both films are centred on a female character embedded in a revolution. Throw in a lazy, smart-mouthed, barely-sober Woody Harrelson - or, just Woody Harrelson - a dastardly Donald Sutherland and the considerable talents of Stanley Tucci and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who can even make a Mission Impossible film look good) and you have a recipe for success. And in front of this backdrop of veterans there are the youngsters, led by the effortlessly charming Jennifer Lawrence.

The film is nearly two and a half hours long, and still I was sorry to see it end. It left me satisfied, but also eager for the final part...which of course has been split up into two films in order to increase profits do justice to the novel. I'm not sure what Harry Potter fans think, but I thought the first part of the final film was dreadfully boring and therefore unnecessary. But then it is the only Harry Potter film that I've seen, so I'm not exactly a qualified judge on the matter. Oh, and I haven't read the books either [watches credibility vanish away...].

Anyway, this is a good film. It's stellar ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic don't lie. I was pleasantly surprised by the first film. I was engrossed by the second. I am now perfectly primed for disappointment, and so are you.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Critiquing Hauerwas

In a provocative essay that is a response to Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas addresses Hays's suggestion that Hauerwas's "hermeneutical position" requires him to become a Roman Catholic. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion for anyone who has read Unleashing the Scriptures to make. In response, Hauerwas says that he cannot become a Roman Catholic because "that would mean that I would belong to a church that holds positions on major ethical issues such as war and the role of women that are at odds with my commitment to Christian nonviolence and my support of the ordination of women."

With such a response Hauerwas falls on his own sword, so to speak. Can I only belong to a church if that church is committed to nonviolence? Surely that leaves me with little choice but to join a Quaker meeting house. What's more, in Unleashing the Scriptures Hauerwas is firm in his conviction that the church is the only community in which the Bible can be read rightly. If nonviolence is so central to Hauerwas's faith that he will not join a church that is not committed to it, then one has to wonder what church Hauerwas is talking about when he talks about the church being the place where Scripture is rightly read. Clearly he cannot be talking about the majority of churches in the history of Christianity, which have not read the Bible in such a way that makes nonviolence necessary, and have thus not read the Bible rightly.

All of this leaves Hauerwas to be a "high church Mennonite" - a humorous moniker that exposes a flaw in Hauerwas's theology - it leaves one to be a member of a church that doesn't exist, an invisible church that always lives up to my own commitments and positions. Of course in a place like America, or Europe's version of America, Northern Ireland, there is a decent chance of finding a local church that lives up to our ideals. Or if not, we can start one. Or just go to an Ikon event every 3 months. But I think that is to miss the point of church.

I grew up in a church that had nothing to say about Christian nonviolence, and that ordained neither men nor women! It was, quite simply, the church I was given. Hauerwas's response to Hays would be far more in line with his own "commitments" if he said that he was not a Catholic because that is not the particular community he was given. The problems arise when we bring choice into the equation. Arranged church membership, anyone?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hannah Arendt

I watched a film about Hannah Arendt, called Hannah Arendt. (Head of the Film-Naming Committee for the project: "So I guess that means we're breaking early for lunch, then...?") It is an apologia for a philosopher who wrote something that caused many of her friends and peers to turn their backs on her. Indeed the central quote of the film comes from Heidegger: "Thinking is a lonely business." Yet if there is a moral to the story, it is that thinking is the sine qua non of morality itself. Eichmann's evil, according to Arendt, is to be located in his failure to think and thus his abdication of his humanness.

A film about a philosopher - or, more precisely, about a philosopher's dangerous idea - treads on thin ice. We read books in order to engage with philosophical ideas. We watch films in order to engage with a story. Narrative and philosophy are not inherently opposed, however. Far from it, as another disciple of Heidegger, Terrence Malick, continues to show us. Yet narrative depictions of "ideas" often make for poor narratives and poor ideas. Hannah Arendt successfully avoids this pitfall by placing everything within the context of friendship. If there is another central quote in the film it is this:

I’ve never loved any people. Why should I love the Jews? I only love my friends. That’s the only love I’m capable of.

Arendt is accused during the film of being all cleverness and no feeling. It is this accusation that the film intends to challenge. Arendt is portrayed as being a deeply emotional being, yet she refuses to separate the act of thinking from the act of feeling. By the end of the story it is easy to be convinced that this is a noble, if not easy, refusal.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Whole

The is a wonderful idiom that I have only heard during football analysis - it speaks of "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts." This captures the essence of what the word "team" or "community" is all about. It is about the collective, to such an extent that the individual parts can no longer be understood if divorced from the whole. This is a glorious truth that "competitions" such as the Ballon d'Or are intent on destroying.

For those who have the fortune of being unaware of the Ballon d'Or, it is an award given to an individual player in football who is thought to be "the best" in a given year. Votes from coaches, captains, and journalists are totted up in what is at best a quasi-democratic system. But it is not the voting system I have a problem with. It is the very concept of the thing, which is little more than a marketing ploy that corrupts the imaginations of young children all over the world, and sparks interminable debates among grown-ups who still think like children. I, regretfully, have been among their number.

To illustrate the corrupting power of this absurd competition, there was an argument put forward a few years ago that said that "Messi is only as good as he looks because he plays with Xav and Iniesta." In other words, the collaboration between Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta is something of a disguise. The "true" Messi is the one that is in complete isolation from his team. Or to put the matter more generally, the real worth of a player can only measured when he is seen as a lone individual. It should go without saying - though unfortunately it doesn't - that such a notion is detrimental to the sport of football.

The competition also produces other absurdities. For example, Messi's most "successful" individual seasons have produced Barcelona's least successful seasons in recent years. This, I dare say, is not a coincidence. It is what happens when an individual transcends a collective. The part - by some made-up criteria - may improve, but the team diminishes. The moment it became clear that Messi was not reliant on Xavi and Iniesta for his greatness was also the moment that Barcelona ceased to be a great team. That Messi was never able to reproduce his form for Argentina should never have been a stick with which to beat him. It should have made us realise that it is the team is what matters, and that the most talented players are at their best when their part functions in a whole.

Of course, when the whole is ignored then it is the individual components that matter the most. But that goes against the ethos of a team sport. Moreover, it usually means that you don't win anything. The days of the lone individual dragging his team to victory are gone, if they ever existed at all. At the highest level, the sum of parts that is greater than the whole will lose to the whole that is greater than the some of its parts. Atletico Madrid's recent victories over Real Madrid are examples of this truth.

One final problem with the Ballon d'Or is the criteria employed. Is it goals that matter? If so, then surely Van Nistelrooy should have been a Ballon d'Or winner in 2003. Is it trophies? Then surely one of Inter's players should have won it in 2010. Is it the level of excitement a player causes when he has the ball at his feet? Then how did Cannavaro win it in 2006? The competition is rife with inconsistency.

The Barcelona of 2009-2012 will go down in history as one of the best teams ever to play the sport. Pedro was a vital component of that team. He was never shortlisted for the Ballon d'Or (as far as I'm aware). He certainly never finished above Ronaldo. Yet it is more than arguable to suggest that Barcelona would have been an inferior team if they had Ronaldo instead of Pedro. The sum of their parts would have been greater, perhaps, but the whole would have been lessened. Pedro's tactical discipline, his pressing, his movement, and his defensive diligence were what was required of him. In no universe is Pedro considered a "better" player than Ronaldo, but that just shows you the unreasonableness of judging individuals as isolated individuals.

The only individuals who should be judged as individuals in football are the managers. It is their responsibility to create a team, to form a whole that transcends its parts. That few accomplish this is a great shame.

* If you care to read a much more reasoned defence of this position, take a look at a Jonathan Wilson article from the beginning of this year, from which I have stolen most of my thoughts.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fallibly Infallible

The following two quotations appear in the same document (The Interpretation of Dogma, penned by the wonderfully titled The International Theological Commission), so they can obviously peacefully co-exist. I am unsure exactly how that is the case, however, so if someone could tell me that would be great!

...the Church condemns anyone who sets that meaning aside under the pretext and in the name of superior knowledge or because of advances in science, or because of some alleged more profound interpretation of the existing formula, or a refinement in the scientific approach to the matter (DS 3020, 3043). Such an irreversible stance and the denial of the possibility of fundamental change is implied in the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, with particular reference to the role of the Pope in matters of faith and morals (DS 3074). This is based on the fact that the Church, through the Holy Spirit, shares in Gods truthfulness, which cannot deceive us any more than it can be self-deceptive in God himself ("qui nee falli nec fallere potest", DS 3008).

The Church is holy, but at the same time a Church of sinners, and for that reason human traditions can slip in which diminish the one apostolic tradition in the case where the nucleus is violated by a certain exaggeration of certain aspects. And that is why the Church always feels the need for purification, penance and renewal with regard to the traditions in her (LG 8). The criteria for judging such a "discernment of spirits" flow from the very nature of Tradition.

Did Jesus Die for Your Sins? Definitely Maybe

I didn't know until today that limited atonement has been re-branded as "definite atonement". I learned this through the title of a new book that attempts to justify and expound that most monstrous of doctrines that, in effect, tells people that the god they should love definitely does not love some people as much as he loves others, and this for no other reason than the sheer arbitrariness of this god's free will. Such a god immediately fails the Anselmian test by failing to be "a being than which nothing greater can be conceived". Why are all these scholars/pastors/historians/theologians/philosophers so desperate for this god to be God?

Perhaps I am too quick to speak of competing gods here, but this does raise an important question: At what point do descriptions of god differ such that they can no longer be said to be describing the same Being?

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Loophole

Like me, you have probably never thought of Solomon, Jesus, or Paul as biblical Gordon Gekkos. But Sean Hyman is here to tell us otherwise. There may even be a lost pericope in which the crowds are grumbling with hunger after one of Jesus's extended sermons, and he responds by saying "Lunch is for wimps". There is also rumours of a textual variant that has the word "greed" instead of "God" in Mark 10:18.

There is a video that goes with the story. I watched it for about a minute, and was notable for being a perfect instance of what this blog post is on about. Also notable in the story is that we are told that Sean has gone from earning a mere $15,000 a year to GIVING AWAY $50,000. Once again the ideal human is the "philanthropist." It is his own business what he earns, but is our business what he gives away.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Possibility and Impossibility of Generosity

This video ties in quite nicely with what I was trying to say a couple of weeks ago. To put it into Hauerwasian language, I was critiquing the assumption that the virtue of generosity is made possible by the acquisition and possession of excess money. Indeed, if Jesus is to be believed, our wealth makes the virtue of generosity impossible. It is no sign of character when we give "out of [our] abundance" (Lk 21:4). Our charity does not reflect our charis - it is the price we pay to justify our greed. This is what happens when economics is divorced from virtue, from imitatione Christi, and becomes autonomous. But as Kevin is going to scientifically prove to us in 2016, theology presents economics with its true end. Indeed, this it does with many disciplines and practices, as they are taken up into the life of the church.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Arbitrage is like an episode of Columbo gone awry, but that's not a bad thing. I'm a huge fan of Columbo, with it being second to The Wire on my list of favourite TV shows. Arbitrage follows its formula to a remarkable degree, and quite self-consciously I should think. We are introduced immediately to the villain of the drama, played with worrying ease by Richard Gere. He is rich, he is adulterous, and he is a complete megalomaniac. But unlike the traditional Columbo villain, the crime that brings him to the attention of the idiosyncratic police detective is an accident. How he tries to get away with it, however, is a coldly executed plan, and we are left wondering throughout how the situation will resolve.

The film, it must be said, is far more cynical than an episode of Columbo. The police are not beyond corruption, and one of the only truly honest people in the film gets burned. Unlike Peter Falk and the gang, Arbatrage will not bring a smile to your face. But it is always compelling, with the hour and forty five minutes flying by.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Gregory the Great

Gregory the Great is the artist behind the best-selling Gregorian chants. Indeed, if the moral communities of the West are in need of a new Benedict, then the worship communities of the West are in need of a new Gregory. We have suffered under the tyranny of ugly music sung by beautiful people long enough.

What I want to draw your attention to is not Gregory's chants, however, but his book on pastoral care. To be a pastor is to be in a position of power. Who can be in such a position? Gregory has a definite answer:

That man...ought by all means to be drawn with cords to be an example of good living who already lives spiritually, dying to all passions of the flesh; who disregards worldly prosperity, who is afraid of no adversary; who desires only inward health; whose intention the body, in good accord with it, thwarts not at all by its frailness, nor the spirit greatly by its disdain: one who is not led to covet the things of others, but gives freely of his own; who through the bowels of compassion is quickly moved to pardon, yet is never bent down from the fortress of rectitude by pardoning more than is meet; who perpetuates no unlawful deeds, yet deplores those perpetuated by others as though they were his own; who out of affection of heart sympathises with another's infirmity, and so rejoices in the good of his neighbour as though it were his own advantage; who so insinuates himself as an example to others in all he does that among them he has nothing, at any rate of his own past deeds, to blush for; who studies so to live that he may be able to water even dry hearts with the streams of doctrine; who has already learned by the use and trial of prayer that he can obtain what he has requested from the Lord, having had already said to him, as it were, through the voice of experience, While thou art yet speaking, I will say, Here I am.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Three Papers

Doing a taught Masters that is more like a research Masters means I don't get to attend many lectures, but in the last two days I've been able to go to two events of high quality. The first was part of the Religious Studies Research Forum, and featured Laurence Kirkpatrick speaking about the Presbyterian mission to Connaught in the 19th century. This was a boom and bust period for Presbyterianism of the Wesht, with one of its lasting legacies being, perhaps ironically, a helping hand in the maintenance of the Irish language. This was the result of the new Presbyterian determination to be "culturally sensitive," and so learning the Irish language became part of the training required for Presbyterian missionaries travelling west, who would preach and teach from an Irish Bible. How many pastors in Ireland could do that today?

Speaking of Irish Bible, the second event was hosted by the Irish Biblical Association, and featured papers from Fr Wilfrid Harrington and Dr Gordon Campbell on the topic of the book of Revelation. Harrington's paper was especially stimulating, and quite provocative in places. For example, he made a passing remark about Revelation and its implicit advocacy of universal salvation, and he also went into Bultmann-mode by speaking of "myth". In short, Revelation gives us mythical expressions akin to the mythical expressions of Genesis and Exodus - flood, plagues - in order to paint a picture of crisis. Harrington of course isn't saying anything novel here. In the opening pages of  The Experience of God David Bentley Hart uses something like the category of myth to describe the story of the flood. That the Bible contains cryptic myths in search of interpretation is an age-old exegetical insight, though today more than ever it leaves people deeply uncomfortable, for good reasons and for not-so-good reasons. But that's a topic for another time.

I had a question that I wanted to ask Wilfrid Harrington, but we ran out of time. He said in his paper that while the imagery of Revelation is violent, the message is non-violent. Indeed his whole paper was soaked through with the theme of non-violence, and how the victim is the victor. But I wonder if we can so easily separate the medium from the message, so to speak, or the form from the content? Is violent rhetoric not itself a form of violence that negates any effort to be non-violent? I think of some of the early Christians - perhaps Tertullian, if I am not mistaken - who were more than willing to be killed rather than to kill yet who wrote of laughing from heaven while they watched their former persecutors burn in the fire of hell. Such violent rhetoric hardly seems fitting for non-violent people. Indeed, it would seem to negate the whole ethos of non-violence, which is surely more than mere expedience - i.e. we're non-violent now, but only because that's what it takes to enter into eternal life with Christ. Once we're in, we'll unleash our sadistic side!

Anyway, I'm glad I got the chance to hear these papers. There will be more from the RSRF in a couple of weeks and an IBA conference on the Bible and History in February which I hope to attend.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Free Information

For those of you who wish there was a way to access academic journals without having to be affiliated with a university or without having to pay heft sums of money then look no further than the Directory of Open Access Journals. The best things in life come free, and here at your fingertips is a world of free scholarship from, er, around the world. Looking to get your hands on an article about Maximus the Confessor by a Romanian academic? Then look no further. You will find all sorts of useful and credible information if you browse inside. There are even 11 journals based in Ireland that are "open access". Take that, Jordan (10) and Guatemala (3). And hang your head in shame, British Virgin Islands (1).

Even for those privileged few who have widespread access to subscription-based scholarly material, this is a very useful site. Indeed, the aforementioned article on Maximus is one that I wouldn't have found if I restricted myself to JSTOR and ATLA. In short, DOAJ seems to have a good thing going on, and it should be embraced. It is surely only a matter of time before we're paying for more and more of what we see on the internet. I mean, bloggers are now getting paid to blog for flip sake! How long before people have to pay to actually read their blogs? Would you pay to read my blog?

Don't answer that.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Politics of Modernity

The trump card in an argument about whether Jesus was political:

At the heart of “politics as statecraft” is the characteristically modern understanding that the realm where persons come together in a polity - a politics - is rightly overseen by and finds its highest expression in the state. 
- Daniel Bell, Jr.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Simple Logic?

Kevin wrote something on money that you should read. In his post he linked to a recent story about pastor Steven Furtive Furtick, who is in the middle of building a not-so-great home worth around $1.7m. He is on the record as saying that "Everything we have comes from God," a statement that sounds theologically correct but which is in fact nonsense.

The following is an investigative video done by NBC:


I want to draw specific attention to the 6 minute mark. Here we see Furtive promoting his book. He very simply explains that if you buy "Greater" then a poor child who doesn't have a backpack will get a backpack. Presumably, if you don't buy the book then the poor child will not get a backpack. Furtive acknowledges that some people see this as a "gimmick," but by his logic it is better for a child to have a backpack than to not have a backpack. Isn't it?

I think this simple logic is representative of popular Christian ethics. It doesn't matter that (or how) you earn $10m a year, as long as you give $1m to the church or charity. After all, isn't giving $1m to charity better than giving $100? Or $10? Or $1? Indeed, isn't the church blessed to have rich people in it so they can pump in loads of money?  Isn't it better that a poor child in Africa gets a pair of shoes every time you buy a pair of shoes, as opposed to the child remaining shoeless? And isn't it better that we give away a backpack every time someone buys our product than not giving away a backpack?

No, it isn't. This is why Zizek says, "Don't act. Think." Far be it from me to equate Furtive with a drug dealer, but this example from The Wire illustrates perfectly what I'm talking about. (It won't contain any spoilers.)

In Baltimore there is a drug dealer by the name of Marlo Stanfield. His crew sells heroin and cocaine on the streets, and he makes a killing out of it. In one episode we see him travelling around in a car, giving away $200 to every local child for some clothes and stuff like that. Most of the children are more than happy to take the money. "I'll take anybody's money if he givin' it away!" - a line said by one of the children and also by a local politician who is funded by drug money. One child, Michael, refuses Marlo's money, however, and walks away. The other children are incredulous, with one offering to take Michael's share on top of his own. This is free money. They don't have to do anything to earn it, and they can even put it to some good use. But Mikey is having none of it. He sees it for what it is - a power play.

But there is more to the story that is left unsaid. The $200 is not "free money." Michael's mother is a drug addict, a regular customer of Marlo's. She has pumped in untold amounts of cash to his business, amounts that have prevented Michael and his brother from having regular supplies of food; more than that, from having a mother. So what may look like "free money" has actually cost Michael far more than what the money signifies. Or rather, this money signifies far more than potentiality. This money has a story, and Michael is not its beneficiary but its victim.

My contention is that we often have the mind of the other children when it comes to this kind of thing. We act without thinking, and don't realise that we're caught up in something far greater and more complex than "innocent" gestures of generosity.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Miss Objective Facts

Here is a good quote from A. K. M. Adam based on a good quote from Augustine, followed by a mediocre question from me:

If Augustine rightly asks, “what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses,” then the biblical theologian’s task must more appropriately involve learning how to flourish in that divine abundance than in devising conventions whose function is to attenuate the variety God provides for our wellbeing.

Donald Guthrie reads the Gospels and gets the "sense" that Jesus was not a political figure and is not a model for contemporary political engagement. John Howard Yoder reads the same Gospels and gets the "sense" that Jesus was very much a political figure, though a deeply subversive and counterintuitive one, and that imitation of this Jesus is inherently political. My question: how do we decide which one of these two readings is right/true/correct/faithful? Is there some criteria by which they can each be measured, like a ruler which can measure the length of two different objects and determine which is longer? I want to know which interpretation is longer! Er, I mean, I want to know how we can determine which makes the best sense. And yet, I want to know this without giving the historical-critical method hegemonic power which can be wielded only by the privileged and knowledgeable few. What is the way forward other than saying "Well that's your reading and this is mine"? Are hegemonies really that bad?

I Love You, Sam Rockwell

Have Owen Wilson and Sam Rockwell been in a film together? If not then someone with women power money needs to make that happen. I watched The Way, Way Back at the weekend. As a former awkward teenager who never got the pretty girl I am built to like this kind of film, no matter how crappy it might be (I'm looking at you, I Love You, Beth Cooper). Thankfully TWWB had nothing of ILYBCs complete lack of charm. But most importantly, it had nothing of ILYBCs lack of Sam Rockwell. Rockwell cranks up his schtick to notch 11, and I can't get enough of it. And if you want more of it, check out The Winning Season, which is like TWWB except told from the perspective of Sam Rockwell's character, and instead of running a water park he's running a girls basketball team, where hilarity ensues! Indeed, watching these two film made me want to be either a girls basketball coach or the manager of a water park when I grow up, which is both testament to Rockwell's performances and disturbing on any number of levels.

The Possibility of Evangelical Theology, or, A Scattered Rant

I get all hot and bothered when I see or hear the word "evangelical." I don't believe Evangelicalism has ever existed. If people say that they are "evangelical," I don't know what the word entails other than that they are in fact Christians, in which case I think they should use the word "Christian". When people write for an "Evangelical" audience it is never clear who that includes; or, rather, it is never clear who that excludes, other than people who don't believe the gospel.

I say all this in the light of Michael Bird's forthcoming book Evangelical Theology. In the time-honoured tradition of commenting on a book one is yet to read, I am deeply suspicious of such a work. First of all, it seems to cater for "students." Ben Meyers has convinced me that theology aimed at students is unhelpful. Barth has convinced me that theologians will be most useful to everyone when they do the work of theology as theologians and for the sake of the discipline of theology. Students don't need books catered to them. They (we) are students of theology, not students of student-friendly theology. When I read that a work of theology contains a "'What to Take Home' section that gives students a run-down on what they need to know" I get upset, and worry about what kind of students will be produced by such books.

Second, while the "centre, unity, and boundary of evangelical faith" may be the gospel, this is not true of the Christian faith. The centre, unity, and boundary of the Christian faith is the God of the Gospel. When Karl Barth wrote his introduction to Evangelical Theology he made it clear that what made it "evangelical" was that it had to do with the God of the Gospel. Barth was a fan of the word "evangelical," because it was for him an ecumenical word, a catholic word. He says that there is such a thing as evangelical Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, in the sense that there is Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology that is concerned with the Christian God. Yet when we put it like this Barth's use of the word "evangelical" is hardly charitable. Roman Catholic or Orthodox theology has always been concerned with God, with or without the adjective "evangelical" attached to it. What, it must be asked, is the difference between an evangelical Roman Catholic and a Roman Catholic? What is the difference between an evangelical Baptist and a Baptist? And if the difference is that the evangelical Baptist has to do with the Christian God, then what the heck does the word "Baptist" mean or do?!

I don't think that the word "evangelical" has the ecumenical potential Barth thought it had. Indeed, a reliable South American source informs me that in at least one of the countries over there, "evangelical" distinguishes someone from "Catholic," rather than being a term that brings everyone together. It is a synonym for "Protestant," which usually functions as a synonym for "Christian" (with the odd "evangelical Catholic" exception). And it is in South America (and other so-called "developing" regions) where "evangelicalism" is said to be flourishing. This faux-tradition is Western Christianity's "gift" to the rest of the world, but it is a gift that comes at considerable cost, because it leaves every tradition that doesn't adopt its label on the outside. No longer is it sufficient to be a Presbyterian. One must now be an evangelical Presbyterian, or a Presbyterian AND an evangelical. Of course don't go joining the actual Evangelical Presbyterian Church, because that wouldn't be very evangelical. Or would it? Who knows!?

The irony of evangelicalism is best captured by Martin Marty:

I often, and gladly, accept invitations to evangelical gatherings, think tanks and schools, where I am introduced as the participant-observer "nonevangelical." I like then to point to a linguistic irony: I am often the only person in the room whose very denomination has "evangelical" in the title and whose confessional tradition was "evangelical" in dictionary senses (gospel-centered, German-Lutheran or Reformed, mainstream Protestant) before the Newsweek version was patented in America.

Of course the word will continue to be used, and continue to refer to something or someone. Personally, I have never thought of myself as an evangelical. If someone were to ask me if I am an evangelical, I would ask them what they mean by that word. If they tell me that it means you believe the gospel, then I would tell them that I do believe the gospel, but that I have a different term for a person who so believes: a Barthian.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Gregory of Nyssa

Humans are needy creatures. Indeed we are needy precisely because we are creatures. "Dependent, rational animals," MacIntyre calls us. While Gregory doesn't deny our being created, he does see our neediness as putting a question mark over the conviction that humans are made in the image of a needless God. How can we be made in the image of God when we get hungry and require food for sustenance?

Gregory, in his treatise on the making of man, puts this down to our falleness, but says that in the age to come we will be like the angels, and thus no longer have any need for food. Hunger, it seems, is part of the groaning of creation, but in the new creation we will feast on the bread of life and never go hungry again.

I'm not sure if Gregory is right or wrong here, but I want to say that he's wrong. The resurrected Jesus ate fish. Was he hungry? Did he eat it simply for pleasure? Gregory seems to be saying that the needs and appetites we experience now are just a shadow, a slightly embarrassing indication of our commonality with beasts that we will eventually transcend. Should we, like Gregory, long for the day when we no longer go hungry because we no longer need food, or should we long for the day when we will no longer go hungry because the abundance of God's creation will not be exploited and hoarded by the few but will be accessible to all? "Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."

Saturday, October 26, 2013


A better script I have not heard. It has the kind of dialogue that makes you dream of being as silver tongued as J.J. Gittes, and a story that moves along effortlessly as a private detective follows a piece of string all the way to the fat cat whose playing with the ball at the other end of it.

Chinatown was number on the Guardian's recent Top 10 Crime Films list, and while it is quite easy to argue that the list is deeply compromised due to its almost indefensible exclusion of Heat (another film with a dream of a script), it is hard to argue with Chinatown being number one.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Eternal Return

Russell Brand, in the interview below, says that the current political-economic system is coming to an end. Is the snake really going to die? And if it does, will it not just rise again? And again?

Brand brings up the concept of "profit," and calls it a "dirty word," even a "filthy" word. Can anything change until people start to think like this? Should we think like this? And how on earth does one get people to think like this?

Christians have been given a prayer so that we can pray like this: Give us this day our daily bread. When, then, did it become okay for Christians to chase after profit?

Monday, October 21, 2013


Officially, Origen is the Luis Figo of theologians. Figo poured so much of his talent into the cause of FC Barcelona, yet he cannot be remembered by Barca fans as one of their own. His heretical move to Real Madrid in 2000 made him anathema. A pigs head, thrown in his direction as he took a corner in the Nou Camp, symbolised a conciliar decision beyond reversal. Origen suffered a similar fate.

He is one of the greatest minds ever to pay scholarly attention to the Bible, yet the church could not overlook his perceived heresy. He believed, to paraphrase DB Hart's language, that the fire that God has stored up for wayward humans is not, ultimately, the fire of eternal punishment, but the fire of an infinite love. In other words, he believed that all things will be restored to their original state of peace and bliss and beauty, because the end must mirror the beginning. He also believed a few other kooky things, but which of the early Christian theologians didn't?

Unofficially, however, Origen is the Michael Laudrup of theologians. Sure, he left orthodoxy (Barcelona) for heresy (Madrid), but we can forgive him that slip up. We can look back on his works (Youtube videos) and appreciate the genius in them. We can perhaps even feel he was a little hard done by by the powers that be. Laudrup, it should be remembered, didn't feature in the Barcelona squad humiliated by Milan in 1994. The next season he found a new home in Madrid, where he went on to win the league for a fifth consecutive year, beating Barcelona 5-0 along the way. Barcelona fans are generally happy that his talents remained on display in Spain, and can even appreciate the poetic justice that he meted out to the club following his departure. Perhaps something similar is true of Origen. The fire he has been cast into has enabled us to discard the dross and hold on to the gold.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Hermeneutical Problem

"Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it."

- Jacques Ranciere

"The problem with using a word is that everyone interprets it differently"

- Johann Cruyff

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sons of David

Last week one of our lecturers gave a "public lecture" (which, unfortunately, most of the public didn't attend) on a theology of success/prosperity in the book of Kings. He looked specifically at Solomon, and through a (very) close reading of the text was able to subvert the public's surface evaluation of Solomon as a good king but with a insatiable libido.

Interestingly (or not), Solomon isn't mentioned much outside of the books of Kings and Chronicles. His names crops up only once in all the prophetic books. But even more (or less) interesting is that when his name appears in the New Testament, it is in the context of some form of criticism (apart from when it is attached to the word "porch").

Jesus mentions Solomon twice in the Gospels, with both incidents recorded in Matthew and Luke, though in reverse order. The first incident is when Jesus asks his disciples to consider the lilies. Their natural, god-given beauty, he argues, is more glorious than Solomon's expensively purchased beauty.

The second incident involves a judgement which Jesus pronounces upon some of his listeners. Even the Queen of the South travelled far and wide to hear the wisdom of Solomon, he says, "and behold, something greater than Solomon is here."

Greater than Solomon, eh? This the same Solomon who, in some ways, made Israel an empire to be reckoned with, who brought the nation great wealth, who made it a militaristic force, who expanded its boarders and built a magnificent temple. And here is Jesus saying that something greater than Solomon is here?

Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines. Jesus had none. (Well, one, if NT scholar Dan Brown is correct.) Solomon lived in an expensively constructed palace that took twice as long to build as the temple. Jesus had nowhere to lay his head. Solomon made people work. Jesus took people away from their jobs. (Jesus, the cause of and solution to unemployment!) Solomon built a temple. Jesus was killed partly because he was accused of threatening to destroy the temple.

Here are two "sons of David," yet the appear to wear that mantle very differently. It might be much of a stretch that Jesus was, in many ways, the anti-Solomon. His superiority to Solomon was not quantitative, but qualitative. Jesus subverts popular theologies of wealth (can I get an amen, pastor Kevin!?). His kingdom is, quite literally, not of this world. Solomon's was.

Finally, here is a somewhat imaginative reading of another NT text that contains Solomon's name. Jesus has dis-appeared, the church has appeared. Peter and John are walking into the temple. They are confronted by a crippled man asking for money. They don't have any. But what is most interesting is the language Peter uses to tell the man that they are broke: "I have no silver and gold." Here they are, standing near Solomon's porch. The same Solomon who, we are told in the book of Chronicles, "made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stone." But in this upside down world inaugurated by Jesus, silver and gold are not its currency. That magic that is money (and it really is a magic) is replaced by the power of God's spirit that works through people who name Jesus as Lord. The church is clearly not ignorant of financial needs, concerning itself with purely "spiritual" matters (though it was only a matter of time before this kind of ethic would come). Yet the unprecedented accumulation of silver and gold that spoke of Solomon's greatness is no longer the criteria by which wealth is judged.  The have-nots have something that silver and gold cannot buy. They have a God who is on their side.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Even those unfamiliar with Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, have perhaps come across two of his more famous quotes. One of them I first read in that John Eldredge book that says a man can only be a real man if he lives in Colorado, where rock climbing, white water rafting, and fly fishing can be everyday pursuits. In Dunmurry, the most manly thing I can do is order a late night kebab from Ali’s take away, and I don’t even like kebabs. Lucky for me I don’t buy into Eldredge’s stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity. I am perfectly content to find my identity as a man in my ability to play soccer, so go sell your idyllic Colorado lifestyle somewhere else, John. I'm all stocked up here!

Anyway, that quote. It goes something like this, depending on where you read it: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Or, “the glory of God is a living man.” Or, to be more accurate, “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Either way, that truly is an inspirational quote, worthy of a place at the beginning of a new chapter, or on a Facebook status update. It seems to echo Jesus when he told us that he came so that we could have “life to the full” or “abundant life.” We may not be quite sure of what such a life consists, but it sounds good. I think of the cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (still the best version), and the scene where the children first hear the name “Aslan” and a smile comes across their faces, even though they don’t know who Aslan is.

Thankfully, Irenaeus doesn’t leave us in the dark as regards the content of a life that is fully alive, though the very next part of the passage is almost always left out. Perhaps it is a little too “theological” or “religious” or “mystical.” Perhaps it strikes us as heretical, or impossible, or as a quaint desire of past generations that no longer holds sway in our modern world. I mean, what else was there to do back then? But Irenaeus will not budge. “The glory of God is living human beings; and the life of human beings consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book IV, chapter 20).

That a full life consists in the vision of God is not an idiosyncrasy of Irenaeus but is, as Vladimir Lossky shows us, a major theme in Christian literature, from Scripture through Maximus the Confessor and beyond. The human’s perception of God is something I hope to touch on in my dissertation next summer, but whatever else it means, it means that what is properly called “life” and “living” must be intimately related to God. That is why the evangelistic message of Christians can be summed up by the phrase “Be reconciled to God!” In this reconciliation is found life. In beholding this God in the face of Jesus Christ we find truth, goodness, and beauty, though not in a form we could ever have imagined.

Which leads on to the second of Irenaeus’s hit quotes. “He became like us so that we could become like Him.” Or, “[Our Jesus Christ became] what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Call it theosis, call it divinization, call it sanctification, call it transfiguration. It should all point to the same reality, namely, that we are conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God. What this does to the “infinite qualitative distinction" between God and man that Barth talks about in his commentary on Romans (borrowing from Kierkegaard), or the difference between Being Itself and begins that is central to DB Hart’s theology, remains a question mark. It is unclear whether the incarnation dissolves this difference or accentuates it. There is, after all, only one Incarnate One, yet there also really is a human who is god, a human who calls us his brothers and sisters.

We are not to grasp at divinity, which is the primordial sin, yet by grace we are made participants in the divine nature. This can sound like too grand and lofty a thing for us, like the sort of doctrine that fuels our enlightened egos. Yet it only sounds like this if we understand the term “divine nature” or “divinity” apart from Christ, the form of a servant, the crucified Jew. Neither Barth, nor Irenaeus, nor Hart (though perhaps his new book will change this) will allow us such an understanding.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protestants and the Canon

William Wrede, one of the foremost New Testament scholars/theologians at the turn of the 20th century, has some controversial things to say in his essay on New Testament theology. One of these is a call for all Protestants to seriously question the idea of a canon. Wrede writes that,

anyone who accepts without question the idea of the canon places himself under the authority of the bishops and theologians of [the second-to-fourth] centuries. Anyone who does not recognise their authority in other matters - and no Protestant theologian does - is being consistent if he questions it here, too.

Is there, as Wrede suggests, an irony at work when a Protestant accepts uncritically the authority of the canon despite not accepting the authority of those who decided upon the canon? Or to put the question a different way, if the church that emerged out of the first century was Protestant in character rather than Catholic, would Christianity ever have had something it could call its Scriptures (give or take a few books)?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


"Be obedient to your bishop and contradict him in nothing."

"Where there is Christianity there cannot be Judaism."

These words were penned by Ignatius at the turn of the second century. It didn't take long for the church to become a hierarchical, anti-Semitic institution, did it!? Calls for congregations to be "subject" to bishops and presbyters are scattered throughout Ignatius's letters. Indeed, one of Ignatius's rather novel titles for Christ is "the true and first Bishop".

It is perhaps hard for some today to shake the idea of a bishop as power-wielding, child-abuse-masking hypocrite from their minds. But - and hopefully this is stating the obvious - there are other kinds of bishop out there. Think of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass, an assassination very much related to his denunciations of injustice and oppression and solidarity with those on the receiving end. Bishop Ignatius was perhaps thought of in much the same way back in his day, what with him writing these letters while in chains and on the way to Rome to be executed.

Therein lies the key to Christian leadership: if you want to be taken seriously as a leader in the church, you have to be doing the kinds of things that make the government want to kill you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The End of Protestantism?

I will leave it to more learned bloggers - aka Kevin - to offer an answer to this question (whenever you're done with 'The Ten Series', of course...unless you want to include it tomorrow as part of '6 Questions I Will Now Answer':

Ulrich Luz notes (in an essay entitled 'The Contribution of Reception History to a Theology of the New Testament') that the study of reception history will aid Protestants in discovering their own “traditioned-ness,” but were Protestants to discover this would it not mean the very dissolution of the Protestant enterprise?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Year Ahead

I have officially begun an MTh. What, exactly, will that entail? My "field" is theological aesthetics, in the Hans Urs von Balthasar/David Bentley Hart sense of the term. I won't, therefore, be looking at the role of the arts in Christian worship, though I will no doubt do some reading on that. Rather, I will be aiming towards concepts such as form, sense perception, and more specifically, a dissertation on the human body as understood by (potentially) Maximus the Confessor and Jonathan Edwards (two theological aestheticians par excellence). Individual modules will focus on the interface of Scripture and theology, which, as a former graduate from Emmaus Scripture school and as one who has been most heavily influenced by New Testament scholar Dr Arden Autry, is a topic I care very much about. From what I've read of Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, there is potential in the realm of theological aesthetics for better understandings of, for example, the relation between Old and New Testament, Scripture and theological reflection, philosophy and theology, and all sorts of other "conundrums".

Thus far my reading has concentrated on the phenomenon known as "New Testament theology", with the final two essays in this particular module examining the relationship between biblical criticism and dogmatic theology (Hauerwas's essay in response to Richard Hays will make for a fun dialogue partner here!) and my own lecturer's proposals regarding the Christ/Adam relationship as they conflict with the proposals of Barth and his heirs. Needless to say, the result is predetermined: Barth will win, for he has been elected in Christ to win before the foundation of the world.

Anyway, below is a sample of the kind of work I intend to do over the next year. I found it hard to get excited about the prospect of more study while I was away from the world of theological education for the first time in 4 or 5 years, but the joy that is the presupposition of the task has returned quicker than I ever expected. Thank God for that. And thank God for 'Quel (or to use NT jargon, 'Q'), who, among other things, leaves print outs of 'how to make fruity porridge' on my desk while I take a nap in the afternoon because my sleep patterns are still a little screwed up (I'm wide awake at 5.30am every morning!).


Robert Morgan, like Rudolf Bultmann before him, sees the necessity of Sachkritik (content-criticism) for any prospective New Testament theology. Since the writers of the NT were human beings and ipso facto fallible, some of their articulations of the gospel have no doubt fallen short of the gospel’s true character. Accordingly, theological interpretation of the NT must be critical interpretation. Some – for example, Richardson – may see in this method the seedbed of heresy, but for Morgan and others this critical practice does not intend to destroy the Christian faith but to articulate it afresh in a new generation. The danger of pure subjectivism lurks, but Morgan thinks that this can and should be mitigated by the New Testament theologian’s existence within a community of interpretation, with which he or she is always in dialogue.

As is argued by several New Testament scholars – Keck, Dunn, Morgan – the New Testament itself is justification for scholarly disagreements and reformulations of old truths. This, it is claimed, is precisely the way theology was done by the NT writers. To squeeze the differences out of the NT is to squeeze the life out of it. Difference – which is as much an aesthetic category as anything else  - should not be feared but embraced, for in this case it an appropriate consequence brought about by the focal object of NT vision: Christ, in all of his mystery and glory. One wonders if some contemporary New Testament theologians would ever have allowed all four Gospels a place in the NT canon, in the interest of preserving a “unified” perception of Jesus – that is to say, a perception of Jesus which has eradicated all difference, and therefore all mystery, glory, and beauty.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Midnight in Paris

"Flatters to deceive" is a phrase invented by the RTE soccer panel to describe a player who is skilful and tricky, but whose skill and trickery have no "end product". These qualities exist for themselves; they are pure instances of self-indulgence designed to dazzle but destined to disappoint when the veil is removed and the wizard is seen to be a mere conjurer of cheap tricks. Examples of those who "flatter to deceive" are, in particular order: Ricardo Queresma, Yohann Gourcuff, Eden Hazard, Alexis Sanchez, Philipe Coutinho, Nani, Hatem Ben Arfa, Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder...the list goes on, and feel free to add your own or dispute my nominations.

It is a wonderful phrase, of the rare sort that captures an action even better than an action can portray itself. I mention it not for its own sake, but in order to describe Midnight in Paris. This, I think, is a film about flattering to deceive, which itself flatters to deceive. That is not to say I didn't enjoy it, however. I will always find Owen Wilson effortlessly charming when he is required to be just that. Rachel McAdams too, though here she is just the opposite, which speaks of her considerable talent (by the way, her few minutes in To the Wonder are among the most heartbreaking in recent times).

The film itself never quite delivers on its promise. I'm not sure it even intends to (which, perhaps, is just a fancy way of saying "It's supposed to be crap)". It represents the value of form over content, style over substance, and is probably most satisfying if you come to it not hungry, but having just eaten and in the mood for some light dessert. A pavlova, perhaps.

At the end of the day, isn't it fair to say that the players mentioned above have provided more than enough moments to make you somewhat glad they exist (Nani excepted, perhaps), and that the world would be an entirely less pleasing place without the following magnificent piece of skill and trickery. Enchant√© en effet, Monsieur Gourcuff et Monsieur Allen.