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. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Hart vs Hauerwas?

I say this tentatively, but it is often hard to discern what Stanley Hauerwas believes about God. It is easy to get the impression that God (the God revealed to us in Jesus by Karl Barth) is a presupposition in Hauerwas's theology, as opposed to its beginning and end.* This itself is not necessarily wrong, however, for one could potentially say the same thing regarding the apostle Paul's way of theologizing (without the Barth bit). These are, to borrow Hays' word, ecclesiocentric thinkers.

Reading this passage from David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea left me wondering what Hauerwas (who, if I remember correctly, was once Hart's philosophy teacher, and who wrote in his memoir that even then Hart knew more than him) would think of it:

...if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.

On the surface at least this seems to contradict some of Hauerwas's work, which is about taking up suffering and death into our Christian discipleship. But Hart is inescapably right: Jesus didn't "suffer with" those he encountered with illnesses and disabilities - he healed them. His presence was not just a being there; it came with a power that we can scarcely believe in any more, so mythical and fantastical does it appear. Indeed, it is almost offensive to Christian sensibilities, for it seems to think that there is something wrong with disabled people that needs to be urgently righted.

Some of Hauerwas's work sounds like a call for Christians to reconcile themselves with suffering and death, but it is hard to see how this squares with the Christian conviction that God is life and death His greatest enemy - an enemy not to be embraced, but once for all defeated. Hart therefore refuses to allow suffering and death a place in God, but sees in the cross the definitive instance of divine power whereby death is subverted, indeed, shattered by the power of an infinite and immutable love that makes a way through death into new life. Jesus did not die well, with friends by his side. He died abandoned by most of his friends, and until Easter their response to his death was fear and disappointment.

As for suffering, the New Testament accords a positive place for it (one which Hart seems not to acknowledge at all), but this is never just suffering in general. It is, I think, always the suffering that follows obedience. The NT gives us no warrant to believe that a parent suffering the death of their child will become more than they would be without that death, or that the abuse that a woman suffers at the hands of her husband will eventually contribute to her personal development. This is not the kind of suffering that God uses for his glory; it is the kind that only the glory of God can overcome, as light overcomes darkness.

And yet, if this haphazard opposition is any way close to being accurate, it is hard to shake the conviction that Hauerwas has a point. Paul, it would seem, died well, and the thorn in his flesh was a constant occasion of divine grace.

* To go some way towards validating this observation, Hauerwas recently talked through four of his favour theological sentences that he has written. The subject of all of these sentences is not God, but the Church. That said, the prayer at the end (which is most definitely addressed to God!) is a wonderful insight into Hauerwas's theo-logy.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

King Jesus?

In this Theology of the New Testament (which would be more accurately titled Theologies in the New Testament), Rudolf Bultmann mentions the evolution of Christ as title for Jesus to proper name. Jesus goes from being "ho Christos" (the Messiah, the Anointed One)  for Jews to "Iesous Christos" for Gentiles. Later, in Latin-speaking Christendom, "Christos" is not translated, but transliterated into Christus, thus solidifying its status as proper name. The same, obviously, is true of the word's move into English. Christ denotes a person, not a title. Commenting on this Bultmann writes,

As a title, "the Christ" was not understandable to the Hellenistic world and any such paraphrase as "the King" (ho Basileus), which would have corresponded in content, was out of the question, in the first place because "King" ad no soteriological meaning; and also because it would have exposed the Christian message to the misconception that it was a political program.

While Yoder and others have gone some way towards undoing the latter assumption (that Christianity is completely unrelated to politics), I think that Bultman has a point. Jesus as King was a problematic proclamation outside of a specifically Jewish context, and remains problematic today. Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel, while perhaps faithful to the original kerygma of the earliest Christians, has some questions hanging over it in terms of its usefulness today. (I haven't read the book, so perhaps these questions are raised and refuted within.)

Calling Jesus King, far from reinstating the politically subversive dimension of Christianity, actually has the opposite effect. In the New Testament, Jesus as King (or Jesus as Lord) functioned to undercut the authority of those who were known as Kings or Lords at the time, e.g. Herod and Caesar). To call Jesus one's King or Lord was to show the one's allegiances to him were in serious tension with the allegiances demanded by other kings and lords. Not so today (at least in countries without a monarchy). We can happily call Jesus our king, with this confession functioning entirely in the abstract. This is bad theology, because it is bad use of the language specific to our form-of-life that we have been given in which to think and speak theologically.

Speaking the gospel isn't about going back to the "original". That is the game of historians. This historical work is beneficial, but only up to a certain point. As (I think) Barth said, theology's task is to speak of God today. We do not ignore what was said earlier, but we do not copy and paste, either. On the surface, this is how I see the work of scholars such as McKnight and Wright. Their work is useful to the church, but perhaps not always in the way that they would imagine it to be.

Monday, September 23, 2013

As I Continue my Theological Education...

To honour a saint you have to imitate a saint.

- John Chrysostom

...we who plague people with words are many nowadays, while those who teach or are taught by actions are very few.

- Maximus the Confessor

If I study [a theologian] solely from a theoretical point of view, I may succeed in generating true statements, but I myself shall remain far from the truth that those statements describe.

- Fr Maximos of Simonopetra

Friday, September 20, 2013

What is Theological About Ethics

Virtue is embodied deification. 
- Aristotle Papanikolaou

I may have just stumbled across the quote that launches my Masters research, as well as what has to be the coolest name in theology at the moment.

The paper which this quote came from, delivered at the International Symposium on Maximus the Confessor in Belgrade a year ago, can be found here:

It is a simple and crucial outworking of Christian anthropology, and gets at what I want to get at in my future studies: creation and creatures as the bearers of divine glory through the process of transfiguration (that most neglected biblical concept in soteriological discussion).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Holiness in the Kingdom: A Sermon

I have been hesitant to put a link to this - partly out of false modesty, partly out of genuine embarrassment, and partly because I am unsure that a sermon remains a sermon when it is abstracted from its particular moment in time - but for anyone interested, here is my first "sermon", available at my home church's website.

I have only listened to the first couple of minutes, but it seems that I say "ummm" a lot. The sermon is also being pulled in a few different directions, but that's just the way my mind works unfortunately. Another year of training will hopefully sort some of that out.

I chose to preach on Luke 13:10-17 only to the extent that I chose to preach on a text from the lectionary reading for that Sunday. I was going to try and weave all four passages together into one brilliant piece of oration, but after about 10 minutes I realised why nobody really does that, and why I wasn't going to be the person to finally pull it off.

The sermon itself it not so much expository as it is theological reflection, though I did carry out the basic hermeneutical tasks as best I could in my preparation. Like Hauerwas, I am suspicious of preachers giving the congregation "the meaning of the text", because when Christians get a grip on the meaning of a text that usually doesn't end well for anybody. But more than that, the goal of a sermon ought to be an encounter with Christ beyond the text. This, after all, is the function of Scripture itself. To put my aim into wishy-washy postmodern jargon, then, with this sermon I tried to give the Gospel story the space in which to breathe.

I am thankful for the opportunity I was given to preach by the church that has been my home since I moved to Galway in the early 90's. There were offers before this which I declined (agent fees, third party ownership, excessive, celebrity-esque demands that could not be met (was a bowl of red Skittles too much to ask?)), but the patience shown by the leadership eventually wore me down!

I may never preach another sermon again. I may preach dozens more. But for better or worse, I will not forget this one.

The Text

10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” 
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” 
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Daily Theology

Since I will be a theology student again soon, I had the crazy idea of actually reading some theology every day. There are two semesters of 12 weeks each, plus a summer of  dissertationing. Ignoring the latter, I am setting out to go through the history of theology in bite-size portions by selecting one (occasionally two) theologian from each century (give or take) and spending one hour a day for a week reading some of their work, until I move on to the next one. Here is the list I have so far. If you have any suggestions as to how it can be improved, they will be most welcomed.

Semester 1

Ignatius and Clement ; Irenaeus;  Origen; Gregory of Nyssa; Augustine; Gregory the Great; Psuedo-Dionysius; Maximus the Confessor; Symeon the New Theologian; Abelard; Anselm; Aquinas

Semester 2

St Catherine of Siena; Luther; Calvin; Teresa of Avila; John of the Cross; Francis De Sales; Jonathan Edwards; Friedrich Scheiermacher; Soren Kierkegaard; Sergei Bulgakov; Dorothy Day; Jurgen Moltmann

The nature of the beast obviously means that there are enormous figures omitted from the list, either because of an arbitrary decision, careless ignorance, or relative familiarity (hence, say, the inclusion of Moltmann over Barth).

I have said something like this many times before, but perhaps at the end of each week I will post a "theological reflection" on the blog.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

To Pray is a Verb

Prayer, both ecclesial and personal prayer...ranks higher than all action, not in the first place as a source of psyshcological energy ("refueling", as they say today), but as the act of worship and glorification that befits love, the act in which one makes the most fundamental attempt to answer with selflessness and thereby shows that one has understood the divine proclamation. It is as tragic as it is ridiculous to see Christians today giving up this fundamental priority - which is witnessed to by the entire Old and New Testament, by Jesus' life as much as by Paul's and John's theology - and seeking instead an immediate encounter with Christ in their neighbour, or even in purely worldly work and technological activity. Engaged in such work, they soon lose the capacity to see any distinction between worldly responsibility and Christian mission. Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognise it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed and humiliated. 
- Hans Urs Von Balthasar