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.