Friday, May 24, 2013

Tumbling Bones

I saw these guys on Shop Steet in Galway yesterday. If you like what you hear then you may find them playing in a town near you over the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: A Mini Review

The Star Trek episode on which the latest film is based ends with a discussion of Milton's Paradise Lost. The latest film itself, on the other hand, contains so gratuitous a shot of a woman's body that Michael Bay has confessed to blushing at the sight of it.

J.J. Abrams - he peaked with Felicity

If you expect nothing from this film, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of Rules

There is a good post on a poetry blog about definitions of poetry. It begins with an apologia of definitions in general, with the argument being that definitions are necessary for the pursuit of human excellence. For example, if "basketball" had no definition then there would be no Michael Jordan. There would be no way to excel or to judge excellence, because each man or woman would be excelling in their own eyes if they could lower the hoop or reduce the distance of the three-point line from the basket to suit their own taste. Definitions provide the criteria by which the performance of a practice canbe judged as good or bad because they offer constraints or limitations that we must work within in order to overcome them; or, better, that we must work within in order to master the practice.

Consider the offside law in football. Because of that law, we can have moments like this and these. The time and space constraints that the offside law brings means that players have a range of skills that need to be mastered in order to work within the given limitations. Not just anyone can play a good through ball. The offside law means that only the best passers will emerge as useful within the game of football. Without the offside law, football would be some lesser game played by lesser players. Written into the definition of football is a whole host of rules, such that to describe what football is and to tell someone the rules amount to pretty much the same thing. It is here that we can begin to see the is/ought distinction collapsing, and the need for concrete definitions and descriptions.

This is exactly the point Alasdair MacIntyre makes in After Virtue, but it is one that many have failed to appreciate, especially if we think of it with our church hats on. I've heard it countless times before: law/religion/rules are the things which the gospel frees us from. Now there is a truth to that assertion, but more often than not it misses the beauty of law and the wonderful limitation that religion offers.

Frost describes writing free verse as like playing tennis without a net. Anyone who has gone to a tennis court only to find it without a net will know how joyless it is to attempt to play tennis on it. My sweeping assertion is that much of Christianity in the West today is an attempt to play it without a net, so to speak. This manifests itself in everything from self-conscious attempts at non-liturgical worship to blatant disregard of the Sermon on the Mount.

Sam Wells write of an "ethics for everyone" approach to Christian discipleship. This approach thinks that we better not make it difficult to be a Christian; we must remove as many of the constraints as possible so that everyone can play. Because of this, Christians are not just greedy or violent because of their sinful nature. Christians are so because these things have been written into the definition of "Christian". The spirit-empowered virtue that it should require to live as a follower of Jesus is no longer needed by those who identify as his followers. We have taken all of the mastery and thus all of the beauty out of the Christian life because of our message of lawless grace, which is no grace at all.

MacIntyre wrote that what society needs is the emergence of a new St Benedict. He wrote this, I think, because he thought that what we need are concrete descriptions of the kind of practices necessary to live a life of virtue. Or, in Christian parlance, the kind of discipline we need to live a life pleasing to God and worthy of the gospel.

In popular evangelical Christianity today, perhaps especially in Ireland, it is thought to be our great freedom that we don't live under something as oppressive as the Rule of St Benedict. The "religious" (read: Catholic) spirit that this rule exhibits is put forward, with the best of intentions, as our great enemy. We can see in it nothing but judgement, and in judgement we can see nothing but feelings of guilt and the incurring of punishment. But what if the judgement that discipline and rules bring is actually the possibility for a Christian life well lived? What if such rules function as the net does in tennis or the offside law in football, providing the constraints we need to master the form of life that Jesus presents to us in the Gospels and offers to us in the gospel?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Review of The Idolatry of God, or, How (Not) To Use Footnotes While Writing Theology

The theological goal of The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction is to prove to us that God is an idol. God is an idol, the argument goes, because God has been turned into an object created by our sinful hearts to fill the void that we think we have. This, according to Rollins, is the true meaning of the term original sin. We have fooled ourselves into thinking we lack something, but the feeling of lack/separation is a myth. This phenomena could be likened to a marketing campaign which tells us that we need a certain product without which our lives will be incomplete. The marketing campaign and its product/idol therefore generates a mythical void - and because mythical, impossible to fill.

If this is the problem as Rollins portrays it, then the solution is to smash the idol, to point out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. The freedom that Christ offers isn't a product, a remedy to the old problem of separation. It is the freedom to live fully in this life as human beings, embracing mystery, uncertainty, brokenness, doubt, and abandonment. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is the beginning, and, perhaps in Rollins' narrative, the end of faith.

In light of this we must wear our identities lightly, if at all. Rollins espouses the Pauline universalism espoused by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, which advocates a dismantling of the fences which divide us. Christianity isn't about Jew and Greek getting along as Jew and Greek. It says that there are no longer these demarcations which secure a certain niche for ourselves. Our identities have been ruptured beyond repair. What remains is the conversation/relations/collective in which we find ourselves and in which we must be always open to experiencing the other as other - and ourselves as other. And when we have this experience, it is at this point that we can begin to name God as God. God is somehow incarnated in this experience.

The ecclesiological goal, therefore, is to form collectives that will foster these kind of experiences. Rollins describes the work of some of the collectives in the final part of the book. There are practices such as Atheism for Lent, The Last Supper, and The Omega Course (a course designed to aid one's exit from Christianity) which groups of people can embrace as ways to free themselves from the tyranny of the idol and instead to hold on to each other as revealers of the divine.

There is an overwhelming problem with the argument of this book. Namely, the book falls on its own sword. Rollins intends to break our addiction to certainty and satisfaction, yet he seems quite certain this his approach to Christianity will satisfy us. Perhaps there is simply no way out of this circle. Embrace dissatisfaction and you will be satisfied.

While Rollins wants to do away with the original sin which tells us that there is a void in need of filling, the book's argument actually amounts to just another way of telling that same story of lack, except this time what we lack is the knowledge that the 20th century French intelligentsia can provide for us. Rollins continues to work from the premise that he aims to destroy: namely, that we need something, that we are incomplete. In this telling of the familiar narrative what we need instead of the God of most Christian churches is the God of a small number of these new collectives. The product has changed, but the idolatry that Rollins names is perpetuated. He cannot seem to escape its clutches; perhaps there is no escaping.

The book is not without merit. Indeed, that the church is in thrall to idols is a truth that needs to be named, simply because it is true. Contrary to Rollins, however, idolatry isn't synonymous with worship. Idolatry is the worship of false Gods. It seems like Rollins wants to do away with worship entirely, as if Christian language does not and should not refer, and all we are left with are our mysterious conversations. Telling us to embrace this is like telling Sisyphus to embrace the rock.

The Christian canon doesn't end with our conversations. It ends with our worship of the Lamb who was slain. Rollins wants to do away with such concreteness. He tells us that we cannot know God. The apostle Paul of Pauline universalism tells us that there is a day coming when we will know even as we are fully known.

There is also an ethical dimension to the book which I haven't yet touched upon. It is all well and good for a group of intellectuals to sit in a pub and tell each other that they don't actually lack anything and that they simply need to embrace their brokenness, and that their profound doubts about God are actually an instance of deep faith. Jesus, on the other hand, promises to make all things new. The poor are given the certainty that they will be satisfied in the kingdom of God. Ironically, there seems to be no space in Rollins' ecclesiology for those he calls us to embrace. They will always be outsiders, for they will always look to God for the certainty and satisfaction that in Rollins' theology makes them idolaters.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Which Atheism?

In The Idolatry of God (a review will perhaps be forthcoming) Pete Rollins mentions different types of atheism. This got me thinking: if theism is a largely useless word, with the concept made intelligible only within  a tradition, then perhaps it's time to do away with "atheism" and "atheists".

There is an assumption made by atheists that people who believe in God/fairies/leprechauns are all basically the same, give or take. The work of Wittgenstein, Barth, Linbeck, Hauerwas and others rightly questions and critiques that assumption. But there is equally the assumption among non-atheists (a-atheists?) that atheists are all basically  the same, give or take. We speak of atheism as if it is a traditionless, ahistorical phenomena, as if "rejection of the supernatural" means the same thing to all who reject it. But just as acceptances of "the supernatural" are largely incommensurable among the different religions, so too must be the rejections of the supernatural.

This is perhaps one reason why Hauerwas finds most atheism boring - it is simply the obverse of theism, which is equally boring. The upshot of this is that when someone calls themselves an atheist, we actually learn very little about them. The word itself doesn't do any real work. Is Rollins therefore right and helpful when he speaks of Christian atheism, Islamic atheism, Jewish atheism, etc?

How can atheism be divided into distinct and recognisable traditions, so that we don't end up lumping Slavoj Zizek and Richard Dawkins into the same boat? Both, of course, don't believe in God, but they seem to mean very different things by and draw very different conclusions from this disbelief. I remember coming across the term "faitheist" on the internet as a pejorative moniker for those like Zizek and Eagleton, which in a way accomplishes what I think ought to be accomplished. It also raises the question about orthodoxy and heresy within atheism, which would make for a potentially interesting line of study.