Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interpretive Strategies

That the act of interpretation is inextricable from the social context of the interpreter is never more evident than when Jesus's sayings to and about the rich are expounded in churches in the West. When those who have are implored to give what they have to those who have not, we take this to mean that those who have are to offer up their possessions to Christ and proclaim that everything they have belongs to Christ. To expect anything else of those who have would be unreasonable, even immoral. After all, if those who have give everything away then what's left for them? In the zero-sum game of life those who have see no reason to switch places with those who have not.

But Luke will not let us get away with our cunning interpretive strategies. Notice the parallel between Luke 18:22 and Acts 4:34-5:

Luke 18.22: "Sell everything that you own and distribute it to the poor"

Acts 4.34-5 [those who owned land or houses] sold [them] ... [and the proceeds] were distributed to each according to his need.

Selling and distributing among the needy was not a unique, one-off mandate given to the rich young ruler. Luke presents this solidarity with the poor as a constituent of the early church. Furthermore, the early church here acts as both the faithful interpreter of Luke's story of the rich young ruler and as the judge over our unfaithful interpretations.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Interstellar (Spoiler warning)

Interstellar is one of those rare films that lays bare a director's vision not only for this particular work but for all of life. This is Christopher Nolan's 2001: A Space Odyssey, his The Tree of Life. When such a film comes around it demands our attention. But does Interstellar deserve it, and can it hold it beyond the three hours running time? The answer to these questions is yes and no, but more no than yes. Indeed, a lot more no than yes.

The yes of Interstellar is its commitment to the vision. This vision is signposted in the opening hour, with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) telling us that "We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it." Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) relates a similar aphorism:  mankind may have been born on earth, but we were not supposed to die on earth. The will to explore is at the centre of Nolan's vision, which means that the film is constantly moving toward new lands, hidden NASA headquarters, distant galaxies, and extra dimensions. It is hard to be bored given this relentless kinetic energy. This creates a problem, however, and is one reason why Interstellar is anti-Gravity: we are never in the same place long enough to care about it or the people who dwell there.

While Gravity did not spend much time on earth, earth was unquestionably "home." The only question was whether Dr Stone (Sandra Bullock) would make it back. Exploration was not the end, and (contrary to Professor Brand in Interstellar) leaving earth was the very opposite of what was required for human salvation. Dr Stone longed for the very mud and dust which Cooper raged against. In philosophical terms, Gravity depicted procession and return. Or in biblical parlance, it conveyed the Old Testament belief of coming from dust and returning to dust. Stone is then raised up from the dust and the mud a creature reborn. Interstellar is all procession, all progress. This in itself does not make for a bad film, though it perhaps makes for a theologically suspect one. Kubrick portrays the relentless journey toward progress stunning effect in 2001. But Kubrick's vision of life was cold, violent, and ultimately lonely. 2001 is deeply tragic and traumatic. Nolan tries to avoid this tragedy by making love the unifying factor in the universe. But in the words of and co, where is the love?

Nowhere is this lack of love more evident than in the film's final moments. A middle-aged Coop is reunited with his long lost daughter on her death bed. She is over one hundred years old due to some time lapse stuff that doesn't make sense. Does he stay by her side to be there when she takes her final breath, or even to mingle with his grandchildren? No. She tells him that no father should have to see his child die, so he quickly departs in order to explore the United States colony which is being established on another planet. For a film which unashamedly preaches the virtues (and science!) of love it has remarkably little time for the actual practice of love. This is because love is bound up with place, and Interstellar has no sense of place. Unlike with Gravity (and also The Tree of Life), earth sure as hell isn't good enough. It is portrayed with wonder and longing by Alfonso CuarĂ³n and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick's cinematographer for The New World and The Tree of Life). It is portrayed by Nolan as arid, unfruitful, and irredeemable.

Where Interstellar also differs from Gravity as well as 2001 is in its unquestioning trust in technology. As far as I can remember nothing ever goes wrong from a technological point of view. Technology can be relied upon absolutely. Hell, even drones become the play things of children! This causes the film to suffer both as a drama and as a meaningful commentary on the human condition. In Gravity the whole drama centres around the limits and vulnerability of technology. 2001 portrays technology ("embodied" by HAL 9000) as being as devious and untrustworthy as the humans which create it. Nolan's Interstellar exhibits no such skepticism. Technology does not fail, it does not disobey, it does not change the humans who use it (at least not for the worse); it simply carries us into a glorious future.

Nolan's faith is admirable. He sees in humans an incredible and complex ability to survive and adapt. But what is the price of this kind of survival? And more crucially, what does it look like for humans to flourish as humans? Nolan's answers to these questions are suspect and superficial. The message Interstellar delivers to humanity is "trust yourself." Gravity, on the other hand, ends in a "thank you" which addresses a reality beyond the limits of human power and which bespeaks a more disciplined and peaceful way of seeing the world. Karl Barth would argue that love is only possible when these limits are acknowledged on the side of humans and broken into on the side of the "beyond" or the "other". For Nolan this "other" is other humans from the future. For Barth this is not other enough.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and History

Anyone with two hours to spare and who is interested in questions of historicity, theology, and biblical interpretation should watch the following video:

On a recent the only blog post which sparked a conversation, the question of whether Paul had an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity popped up. While apparently not far from "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" it is a question which does have a bearing on how the Bible is viewed and interpreted. Do we require Paul to have an orthodox account of the immanent Trinity if he is to be considered a trustworthy writer? And if Paul does not have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity what does that make him? A heretic!?
I came down on the side which thinks that Paul neither had nor needs to have an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I don't think theology works that way, with everything the church teaches being simply lifted from the Bible (here I said with Barth in his suspicion of biblical theology as any kind of substitute for dogmatics). There is, to be sure, the beginnings of Trinitarian orthodoxy in Paul's corpus (as well as John's), but Paul himself lacked what the church in the second, third, and fourth centuries supplied. This means that we do not believe exactly what Paul believed. But if we believe that the Spirit leads the church into truth then that should not be cause for concern.
This video addresses an even trickier question: did Jesus of Nazareth believe he was divine?
What I find most interesting about the video is that the opposing speakers are both orthodox Christians, yet they arrive at orthodoxy from very different starting points. Licona grounds his orthodoxy in history. Martin grounds his orthodoxy in the church. This raises a key question: to what extent is the church's orthodoxy dependent on historical factuality? Does Christianity ultimately "appeal to history", as N.T. Wright is fond of saying?
This video won't answer all the questions, but it does a good job of raising them. Noteworthy also is Martin's "explanation" of his faith at the end. For someone who appears to identify himself with the liberal strand of Christianity it is curiously Barthian.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Ninja Samaritan

Continuing on this blog’s life as a supplement to Creideamh, I will now write something about pacifism Christological non-violence. I have been reading a couple of commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount as a way to see if Jesus really meant that we shouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow and about important things such as clothes and food. But as the topic of pacifism was hot I decided to see what the authors had to say about these verses in Matthew 5:38-42:

“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

I'll use Charles Talbert (and his book on character formation and ethical decision making in the Sermon on the Mount) as my sparring partner.

As a collection of directives which impinge on our moral imaginations by the sheer force of their rhetoric, Talbert sees in this passage the type of language which functions to form moral character: “It is a catalyst for one’s becoming a person who does not retaliate” (91). With this I wholeheartedly agree. This Sermon is about forming humans into the image of Christ, who is our forerunner in the refusal to retaliate.

But when it comes to discussing the implications of this passage for “ethical decision making” Talbert makes a complete hames of it. First he leans on Eugene Boring, who says that this passage on non-retaliation cannot be taken literally because such a reading would lead to anarchy, the multiplication of evil, and an increase in suffering and oppression. Boring’s (and Talbert’s) mistake is to think that Jesus is instructing everyone. He is not. He is instructing those who would be his disciples, those who would show themselves to be sons and daughters of God. The move to not take these instructions literally is a move which obliterates the peculiarity (and anarchy) of discipleship. What Boring and Talbert are saying is, effectively, “if these instructions cannot be followed by everyone then they can be followed by no one.” But that is a deeply problematic way to make ethical decisions.

By way of illustration, the instruction to not take any risks with one’s money is not for a professional gambler. The professional gambler is someone who by definition takes risks with his money. He cannot possibly keep this instruction and remain as he is. It is not for him in his current status. He can of course choose to obey the instruction, but at that point he is no longer what he once was. To bring this back to the Sermon, Jesus isn’t telling soldiers to refuse to retaliate. Retaliation belongs to the very definition of a soldier. A soldier who doesn’t retaliate is like a gambler who doesn’t take risks with his money. It is nonsensical. So if a soldier wants to obey the commands of Jesus, he will logically cease to be a soldier. The attempt to make these commands into something that a soldier can obey is to put the cart before the horse. Talbert says that “a Christian who works for the State may find it necessary to retaliate in that role” (93). But if Jesus’s words are to be taken seriously, it is the role and not the call to non-retaliation that is in question.

This is not the biggest problem with Talbert’s exposition, however. He goes on to say that “the hermeneutic of the Matthean Jesus placed love and mercy as the overriding concerns in terms of which everything else is to be interpreted” (91-92). That’s a fair enough statement. But what Talbert does with it is exegetically and theologically specious. He thinks that, given this concern for love, “then love of neighbour would override the value of non-retaliation” (92). He uses a hypothetical version of the Good Samaritan parable to demonstrate his point. Suppose that instead of coming along after the attack and robbery the Good Samaritan turned up right in the middle of it. If the Samaritan placed non-retaliation above love of neighbour, he would have waited until the attack was finished and then tended to the wounded man’s needs. In Talbert's eyes, putting non-retaliation before love of neighbour is a reversal of the true order of things. If the Samaritan had acted the Jesus way, Talbert argues, he would have placed love of neighbour before non-retaliation, and “would likely have taken his staff, cuffed the robbers about their ears and driven them off, and then gone to the man. In so doing he would have made his ethical decision out of a character that gave mercy and love for the neighbour priority” (92).

The first and overriding problem with Talbert’s exegesis is that he thinks of “love of neighbour” and “non-retaliation” as two separate ethical directives. But non-retaliation is precisely a way to love one’s neighbour. Talbert presumes to know what love is, but it is Jesus’s words in this Sermon that give love its true definition. Furthermore, non-retaliation is a way to love one’s enemy. The parable of the Good Samaritan is told precisely to change the way we think about who is the neighbour and who is the enemy. If we kill our enemies to protect our neighbours we have not carried out Jesus’s commands. Allowing our neighbours to die by refusing to kill on their behalf is not wrong  - in fact, this is what Jesus told Peter to do when he told him to put away his sword (“for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”). God, after all, allows us all to die! But killing our enemies in no way belongs to the New Testament ethic of love. In his hypothetical version of the Lukan parable, Talbert make absolutely no room for love of enemy in his ethical decision-making process.

There is also a practical problem which is ignored by Talbert: he assumes that attacking the attackers will work. But what would prevent both the Samaritan and the other man from lying helplessly on the road having both been beaten up and robbed? In Talbert’s hypothetical version the lesson we might well end up learning is that fighting violence with violence is useless, because then there is nobody left to help the wounded. The parable would end tragically with the Samaritan and the Jew lying half-dead on the side of a road without anyone to come to their aid.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This is Martin Bonner - Catch it While It's Hot

If you have access to the US Netflix, I recommend giving This is Martin Bonner a watch (it's only going to be up for another day or two). It's a film about a man who works for a Christian organisation that aids former prisoners in their emergence back into society. It's also one of the only films I've ever seen whose main character has a degree in theology! At just over 80 minutes it is a short watch, but I am still mulling over its contents.

And it's got Karl Barth in it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Equal Yet Unequal

When I wrote my previous post on gender and the Bible I assumed I had settled the matter once and for all. It turns out that not everybody agrees with me. Hard as it is for me to accept that that’s true, it has also forced me to turn my gaze on my own position and work out exactly where I stand. This post will hopefully help me move toward that end. I will offer a very brief “history of exegesis” of 1 Corinthians 11 based on the commentaries that are available to me. Sound boring enough for you?

The “ancient commentary on scripture” series present a smorgasbord of early Christian interpretations of 1 Corinthians. The dominant thread running through these comments is that man and woman are equal in substance but different in terms of their relationship to one another. For some, the equality is stressed. For others, it is the difference that matters.

Chrysostom states that “Christ and God are equal in substance but different in relationship, and the same applies to man and woman” (105). Severian of Gabala insists that “the nature of man and woman is the same,” just as the nature of God and Christ is the same (105). The difference, then, is one of relations – the woman submits to the man. “For just as God has nobody over him in all creation, so man has no one over him in the natural world. But a woman does – she has man over her” (107).

Augustine is clear that both man are woman are images of God – images of the Trinity, in fact. But man is that part of humanity that has “the power of ruling” and woman is that part of humanity “that is ruled” (107). Ambrosiaster, while affirming the equality of substance between man and woman, claims that “the man has relational priority because he is the head of the woman. He is greater than she by cause and order, but not by substance” (107). The woman is “dependent,” whereas the man is “responsible” (108).

Epiphanius uses this text (along with 1 Tim. 2:12 and Gen. 3:16) as justification for denying women the office of bishop or presbyter (107-8). Theodoret of Cyrus appeals to the “order of creation” evident in this text as a way of explaining “the primacy of man.” After all, “the woman was created to serve him, not the other way round” (108).

Interestingly, out of all the texts given, only Pelagius references the new creation in Christ. He says that “The man is the head of the woman in the natural order but not in Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female” (104).

The problem with the “equality of substance” argument is that it tends to be largely meaningless. All it usually affirms is that both man and woman are homo sapiens. You could just as easily say that “Wuthering Heights” and “PS – I Love You” are equal in substance. They are both books, made out of paper with ink printed on them. But that doesn’t get us very far. It is the content that matters. And the content for humans is relational all the way down. Affirming the equal humanity of women is certainly a start. God knows that powerful humans often try to deny the humanity of those they seek to dominate and exploit. But humanity is always co-humanity, and these interpretations almost unanimously present co-humanity as men being the responsible rulers and women the dependent subjects. It is hard to argue that they have read Paul irresponsibly; his language, at the very least, makes these readings almost natural. But it is relatively easy to argue that they have not taken the “counter-testimonies” of the canon into account, as Pelagius did.

Skipping on a few centuries, Calvin, like Pelagius, notices an apparent contradiction in Paul’s thought. How does he reconcile 1 Corinthians 11:3 with Galatians 3:28? Calvin does so by appealing to the “spiritual kingdom” which is only in view in the Galatians passage. Here the equality between man and woman has nothing to do with their bodies, or with “the outward relationships of mankind.” Rather, it has to do with the mind and the inward conscience (354). 1 Corinthians 11, on the other hand, has to do with “civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life” (354). So while “spiritually” there is no regard paid to the difference between male and female, “external arrangement and political decorum” dictate that a relational “inequality” exists, such that woman follows man.

Calvin also addresses the discord between Paul telling women to cover their heads while they prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5) and Paul telling women to be quiet in the Church (1 Tim. 2:12) by claiming that Paul was simply delaying his condemnation of female prophesying for another date, and that by condemning their uncovered heads he does not commend the prophesying (356). This, it must be said, is yet another disastrous example of the kind of exegesis that happens when scripture must be perfectly squared with itself. Calvin’s logic is flawless, but it only serves to show how limited the role of logic is when it comes to faithfully reading the text.

In relation to Paul’s phrase that man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7), Calvin is pretty much in line with early Christian interprets: substantial equality but relational inequality. The man is therefore “superior” to the woman and has “pre-eminence” over her (357). The woman is the “distinguished ornament of the man” (in The Message translation of Calvin, she is “the man’s trophy wife”), the “product” whose “cause” and whose “end” is man (357-8).

This is a brief selection of the interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 which the Church has produced and inherited down through the ages. I will tackle some of the more modern interpretations in another post, but I will make three comments based on the above snippets.

First, early Christian interpreters were well capable of criticising the literal meaning of biblical texts when they didn’t conform to reason or moral sensibilities. There is no such criticism levelled at this passage, however. The “order of creation” argument made sense in their world. The relational superiority of men made sense. Indeed, texts like 1 Corinthians 11 perpetuated that norm.

This raises a question which was also raised in the comments section of the first post on this topic: on what grounds can we criticise this norm? Is patriarchy “normalised” by the scripture’s rootedness in patriarchal societies? If Paul was patriarchal, does this make patriarchy the norm? And if he was patriarchal, on what grounds can we criticise his patriarchy? Paul, after all, told us to imitate him. Does that mean we should imitate his patriarchy?

Second, the witness of the canon is acknowledged by both Pelagius and Calvin to be in (apparent) tension. Calvin resolves this tension in the interest of preserving a univocal canon. Pelagius’s brief comment lets the tension hang in the air. Should this canonical tension be resolved? Or can one part of scripture be countered by another part of scripture without losing the authority of scripture? What would the authority of a diverse and “tense” canon look like? How would this authority be exercised?

It should be no secret by now that I think that scripture is countered by scripture in numerous places. I think a doctrine of scripture (and a hermeneutical method) have to reflect this diversity. The principle of scripture interpreting scripture is a sound one, provided it is not used to explain away the troubling nature of certain texts.

Third, Calvin’s distinction between the spiritual kingdom and the “ordinary life” which we live in the world has had a long shelf life. I have had plenty of conversations with people where we largely agree on the radical message of the gospel and yet disagree over whether this radical message can or should have any impact in the here and now. In theological jargon, there is very little realized eschatology around today. Paul, who said that “if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: the old has gone and the new has come”, would surely be horrified at Calvin’s exegesis, and his relegation of the kingdom to the human conscience.

As I said in the original post, Paul should be read graciously and critically. Critically, because he was unable to see the full extent of the “crater” that was created by the explosion of his gospel message.  Graciously, because the gospel which he preached was the gospel of Christ, who is the good news.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Who Then Should I Kill?

I stumbled upon Richard Dawkins's website today. He wrote an article defending his recent tweets about rape and paedophilia and logic. It's his description of moral philosophy that's most intriguing, however. He begins the article with these paragraphs:

Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak? 
Moral philosophers make full use of the technique of thought experiment. In a hospital there are four dying men. Each could be saved by a transplant of a different organ, but no donors are available. In the hospital waiting room is a healthy man who, if we killed him, could provide the requisite organ to each dying patient, thereby saving four lives for the price of one. Is it morally right to kill the healthy man and harvest his organs? 
Everyone says no, but the moral philosopher wants to discuss the question further. Why is it wrong? Is it because of Kant’s Principle: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” How do we justify Kant’s principle? Are there ever exceptions? Could we imagine a hypothetical scenario in which . . . 
What if the dying men were Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein and Martin Luther King? Would it be then right to sacrifice a man who is homeless and friendless, dragged in from a ditch? And so on. 
Two miners are trapped underground by an explosion. They could be saved, but it would cost a million dollars. That million could be spent on saving the lives of thousands of starving people. Could it ever be morally right to abandon the miners to their fate and spend the money on saving the thousands? Most of us would say no. Would you? Or do you think it is wrong even to raise such questions? 
These dilemmas are uncomfortable. It is the business of moral philosophers to face up to the discomfort and teach their students to do the same.

It is true that moral philosophy has been (and continues to be) practised along these lines. But my word is this the most boring and pointless way to do moral philosophy, not to mention the most morbid. Moral philosophy, it seems, boils down to who we should kill!

You can either throw Andres Iniesta into a pool of piranhas or starve 2 homeless men to death. Which should you do?

Your father and mother are drowning in the ocean. You are only able to rescue one of them on your two-person dinghy. Your father is a surgeon who saves hundreds of lives a year. Your mother is a social worker who transforms the lives of families in poor communities. Your father has cancer and will die in a year. Your mother has a brain tumour, but she will live if it is operated on. The only person in the world who can operate on her is your father. Who should you save?

While fun for about three minutes, this is the worst form that moral philosophy can take. Rather than it being the business of moral philosophers to face up to these uncomfortable and useless dilemmas, it should be the business of moral philosophers to once and for all put this way of doing moral philosophy to death. Ironically, it has no utility.

A Response to Kevin's Blog Series

Over at Creideamh Kevin has just completed a perceptive blog series on The Meaning of Marriage by the Kellers, which culminated in a review of Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule. Rather than having to wait each day for a new episode, the whole season can now be watched in one sitting. That’s the beauty of the Netflix age.

To summarise, Kevin praised the Keller’s for being complimentarians who are as uncomplimentarian as it’s possible to be while still remaining complimentarians. But then he criticised them for the implicit (and explicit) natural theology which props up their perspective, and for the subordinationist doctrine of the Trinity which appears at important junctures. (I wonder if in fact these two problems are simply two sides of the same coin, with the Trinitarian life of the God-head receiving its intelligibility from the natural world. The complimentarian position then becomes a way of “explaining” or “understanding” the ineffable mystery of the Trinity. As Augustine once said, if you understand it then it isn’t God. Basing a social ethic off of it implies understanding it, and claiming to understand it is a sign that it isn’t God!)

Whether the Kellers are guilty of what Kevin charges them with I don’t know, because I made a vow before God never to read another book on “relationships.” But Kevin is a gracious and judicious reader of texts, so there is good reason to trust his argument.

There is one issue I have with Kevin’s series which I’ve highlighted in the comments, and which he touched on in the final instalment. It is the issue of biblical interpretation. Kevin, based on Morrow’s book, describes the following hermeneutic:

You begin in Genesis 1 and 2 with equality. In Genesis 3 there is Fall and the distortion of gender identity that produces, among all the other chaos, misogyny and the rest of the sin that we bear. But from that point onwards the culture-transcending revelation of God pierces through with judges and prophets and poets and saints that direct our attention to the restoration of creation’s goodness. This comes to fruition in Jesus, and Morrow reads the succeeding letters of the New Testament as part of the real-time working-out of what the Kingdom means for worshipping communities. Figuring out what it means for gender is why we have the passages over which people battle.

This is a hermeneutic that will go a long way toward figuring out what it means to live in the Kingdom, but I have one problem with it. The word which pierces us is not “culture-transcending” – or at least not all the time. The fall pervades even the biblical text. The word which (when read in a certain way) calls us out of patriarchy is also implicated in the very patriarchy which it calls us out of. This is why figuring what the Kingdom means for gender necessarily involves critical reading. This isn’t a simplistic criticism which lambasts Paul for how wrong he was. Nevertheless, it is possible to be critical of Paul while being faithful to the Gospel which he preached. Consider some of New Testament scholar and United Methodist minister Richard Hays’s comments on 1 Corinthians 11.

This is a difficult text that has been omitted from the revised lectionary. In it Paul speaks of man being “the image and glory of God” and woman being “the glory of man”. Hays says that “regrettably, Paul gets himself into a theological quagmire” (186). This is regrettable, argues Hays, because Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 1:27 is faulty, most likely based on a tradition which sees only the man as the original image-bearer. This interpretation leaves Paul espousing “the ontological priority of the male” (187). Hays says that “[Paul’s] arguments may appear unpersuasive and objectionable to modern readers, but there is no point in attempting to explain away what Paul actually wrote” (187).

What is also interesting about this passage from 1 Corinthians 11 is that Paul appeals to “nature” (physis) as a source for normative behaviour (1 Cor. 11:14). This appeal, Hays writes, was characteristic of Stoic and Cynic philosophers (189). Given the Corinthians’ love of Greek wisdom Paul perhaps adopts it as a rhetorical device, but he nevertheless adopts it. Barth’s “nein!” may quite rightly be aimed in Paul’s direction at this point.

Hays’s “reflections for teachers and preachers” offers some practical advice on how such a passage can help us to figure out what it means to live in the Kingdom. First, he says that we should practice “hermeneutical honesty,” never pretending to understand more than we can (190). This is a culturally-conditioned text whose details often lie beyond our grasp. Yet Hays states that all texts are culturally conditioned, and so the cultural idiosyncrasies of this particular text do not mean that it does not apply to us. Rather, it applies to us as much as any other text.

Hays says that the aim of Paul’s letters in general (and this letter in particular) “is to reshape his churches into cultural patterns that he takes to be consistent with the gospel” (190). Hays then brings the following question to 1 Corinthians 11: are Paul’s directives persuasive on their own terms? In other words, does Paul mount an argument that is consonant with his own theological vision? (190) Hays’s answer is yes and no. On the one hand, the created distinction between man and woman is consonant with Paul’s theological vision. On the other hand, the hierarchy which he justifies based on a “problematical exegesis” of Genesis leads to a weak argument (190-1). What then should we do with this passage? Hays offers three pieces of advice.

First, the created distinction between man and woman should be upheld by the church. “We are not disembodied spirits,” says Hays, and so the particularity of our bodies should be reflected in our dress and appearance (191). Second, Hays sees in this passage a Pauline argument for the functional equality of men and women. He goes so far as to say that “[a]nyone who appeals to this passage to silence women or to deny them leadership roles in the church is flagrantly misusing the text” (191). Third, Hays says that the “patriarchal implications” of verses 3 and 7-9 must be confronted. How should we confront them? Hays suggests that we consider other readings of Genesis that might challenge Paul’s and which “might lead us to conclusions about the relation between male and female that are not precisely the same as Paul’s” (192).

Another strategy suggested by Hays is to begin with the clause “God is the head of Christ” and to explore what this headship might mean within a Trinitarian understanding of God. Hays claims, rather uncontentiously, that Paul had no explicit doctrine of the Trinity (192). He also claims that Paul appears to operate with a subordinationist Christology (see 1 Cor. 15:28). According to Hays, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity actually works against the subordinationist implications of Paul’s argument. These suggested strategies do not lead to “simplistic arguments about whether Paul was right or wrong” but rather “enable us to rethink more deeply the substantive theological issues raised by his treatment of hairstyles in the worship of the Corinthian church” (192).

I offer Hays’s interpretation of this contentious Pauline text as a way of showing how a gracious and judicious reading of the biblical text might be carried out. Bringing this back to Kevin’s series, it is interesting that the charge of “natural theology” or “subordinationism” could be levelled at Paul’s own work on gender relations. This leads me to believe that as long as Paul cannot be read critically, the complimentarianism of the Kellers will continue to flourish.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Since October I have been on a mission to write 56,000 words. So far I have written about 46,000. That means I'm averaging just over 153 words per day, which is about 10 words per waking hour. That's right. 10. You're impressed. I can tell.

It sounds a bit rubbish when I reduce it to numbers, but it's been quite a slog so far, yet a hell of an enjoyable one. The final essay I wrote captures the experience well. I was tormented by it, thinking about it all the time, settling on a position and then almost immediately moving away from it. And in the end, I found refuge in the theologians that have accompanied me since I first began my studies in Belfast: Brueggemann and Barth. (That said, Barth wouldn't appreciate my allowing "natural theology" a certain claim.)

The essay itself is a theological reading of the conquest narrative in Joshua. I evaluate the readings of Calvin, Stephen Williams, Douglas Earl, and Eric Seibert, and then propose a hermeneutical lens of my own. How convincing or useful it is I don't really know. But have a read and see what you think:

Theological Reading of Joshua 1-11

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Virginity: Overrated?

I read two articles via Facebook this morning:

The first one makes the point that virginity has become so prized that those who no longer possess it are sometimes viewed as irreparably damaged Christians. Their special present to their spouse has already been unwrapped, and it's now soiled with bodily fluids. The shame that one feels at such a scenario may have been wiped clean by Christ's own bodily fluid (blood), but something has been lost that's never coming back. You may be convinced that there is no condemnation in Christ, but there certainly is regret.

The author blames this perspective on the idolisation of the purity ideal.

[Spoiler alert] I recently watched Chasing Amy, which deals with a similar topic though on a whole other level. A man falls in love with a woman, but the woman is gay. She is gay not so much by nature as by choice (if you'll allow me that distinction). She eventually falls for him and they end up in a strange and strangely sweet relationship. But here's the problem: she has a past! Of course the man knew this, but only to a limited extent. When he discovers the full extent of his new girlfriend's sexual history, however, he is disgusted. He thought he was the first man she had ever been with, but my word was that not the case. And so he makes her feel shame. It doesn't matter that she is madly in love with him and committed to him and that the past is in the past. She has become damaged goods in his eyes.

Given the woman's extraordinary sexual escapades it is tempting to forgive the man for reacting the way he did. Yet in the end it is quite obvious who is in the wrong. I mention this film because it portrays how Christians are sometimes made to feel with regard to sexual purity: on the one hand, disgust or resentment over a standard that was breached in the past, on the other hand, unacceptable, damaged, inferior. To the extent that this article criticises this tendency it is to be lauded.

Yet there are problems with it. First, the author separates holiness from the body, as if holiness has nothing to do with what we do with our genitals. This leads to a further distinction between "sexual purity" and "spiritual purity" which is at best problematic. I understand the desire to move away from the sex-obsessed discourse of evangelicalism. The Christian church has always had the sexual life of humans in view, yet it is arguable that the ascetical teaching of the Church has historically been more concerned with what you do with your money or your food than with what you do with your sexual organs.

Nevertheless, virginity was a topic addressed by many Christian theologians, and was widely considered a virtue to be prized. The apostle Paul, for example, encourages people to remain virgins so as to better serve the Lord. And my new friend Maximus the Confessor thought that virginity as a "single" was the highest form of self-control. The lowest form was marriage with lots of sex. The next lowest was marriage with a little bit of sex. After that, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation. And just below virginity, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation, and then after one or two children are born no sex at all. In other words, the less sex the better.

This segues nicely into the second article, which is written by an asexual man who is married to a woman and who does not have sex with her. It's a sort of reverse Mayor Quimby: "This is my wife, but I am not sleeping with her." He is a virgin not so much by choice as by nature (if you'll allow me that distinction. If you will, then I wonder if virginity by nature would be considered ethical by Christian theologians such as Maximus, or is it the choice of virginity that makes it a moral act?).

What is most peculiar about this situation is how in line it is with early Christian teaching on sexual ethics and how out of line it is even with sex-obsessed evangelicals.

Which leaves me wondering: is the issue a matter of "conservative" vs "liberal" attitudes to sex, or something deeper - something which includes our rather laissez-faire practices with regard to money and food?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Barely Trinitarian

I have a confession to make: I am a student of theology who dislikes reading about the doctrine of the Trinity. When reading Tertullian for my dissertation I usually sprinted through his work on the Trinity. I have read a lot of Karl Barth, but I have not read a lot of Barth on the Trinity. David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite opens its dogmatic part with a chapter on the Trinity. It was the last chapter I read, and even then I only half-read it at best.

Perhaps the Trinity is like Guinness or coffee or a Terrence Malick film: appreciation for it is earned through hard work, and even then appreciation is not guaranteed. But rather than put the work in, I begin with the conclusion that nobody who writes about the Trinity knows what they are writing about. Don't get me wrong: I presuppose the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity as best I can. But I'm happy to take it as mystery pointing to a mystery and then move on to other things that make for better reading.

Since this can't go on forever, is there any writing on the Trinity that will make me not want to skip over all those other writings on the Trinity?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Body and Soul

The 20th century's pre-eminent philosopher made the following profoundly Christian statement:

The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

This is a re-jigging of Jesus's statement that his disciples will be known by their fruit. As I read Jonathan Edwards I am encouraged to find amidst his talk of affections and ideas and minds and hearts that same commitment to the indispensability of bodily praxis:

…if a professor of Christianity manifests in his behaviour a pitiful tender spirit towards others in calamity, if he is ready to bear their burdens with them, willing to spend his substance for them, and to suffer many inconveniences in his worldly interest to promote the good of others’ souls and bodies; is not this a more credible manifestation of a spirit of love to men, than only a man’s telling what love he felt to others at certain times, how he pitied their souls, how his soul was in travail for them, and how he felt hearty love and pity to his enemies; when in his behaviour he seems to be of a very selfish spirit, close and niggardly, all for himself, and none for this neighbours, and perhaps envious and contentious?” 
- Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Maximus the Confessor finds in the heron a supreme example of chastity. How so?

They say that a "heron" is a bird, and it lives with such chastity that whenever it is about to come together for sexual intercourse it mourns for forty days, and after these, again, another forty days.

Cue the "that sounds just like my wife" jokes.

Battle of the Anthems

The World Cup is, among other things, a war of national anthems, which themselves usually have some kind of war behind them. These patriotic tunes which open every game of the tournament are somewhat at odds with the make-up of "national" teams these days. Many players cannot sing them, either because they don't know the words or because the words don't reflect their convictions or sense of identity (or, as is the case with Ireland, they don't know the language!). What it means to be German or French or Irish may no longer be reflected (or may never have been reflected) in the ideological lyrics that accompany the often beautiful melodies.

To my ears, no melody is more beautiful (and, perhaps, no lyrics are more troubling) than the German national anthem, Deutschlandlied. The part about Germany being above everything in the world is left out, however, so the usual cliches about fraternity and justice are all that is sung by some, though by no means all, of the German players. Podolski, Ozil, Khedira and Boateng remain silent in the video below as their team mates belt out the lyrics with gusto. One wonders what this obvious divide does to team spirit? Certainly this cosmopolitan German team, for all its talent, has not been exemplary in its cohesion in the way that previous German teams were. Time to ditch Deutschlandlied?

Leaving all this to one side, however, the tune is elegant and graceful, and remains my favourite World Cup anthem. Here is what Chris De Burgh of, er, Guardian Sport, has to say about it:

I have a great connection with this piece of music, which was written by Haydn in 1797. I went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and they had a beautiful chapel where we had matins most days. I remember singing the hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, to this tune, which with 800 voices was a thrilling sound. I was brought up Church of Ireland, and one of my earliest memories would have been in church with mum and dad, listening to this melody. There’s an interesting thing with music like this, how the beat falls with the melody; they often say music is mathematical in construction and this is a very good example. The melodic pattern repeats itself several times throughout, then you have a mid eight, and for me the most thrilling part is the reprise, those rising notes, and then it hits the top. It’s a hell of a piece of music.

Here, also, is the hymn version of the song, mentioned above by De Burgh:

I look forward to my local Church of Ireland (which, on the topic of nationalism, has a British flag hanging up inside!) belting out this song some time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Uniqueness not a Virtue?

Q & A sessions at the end of a lecture/talk are brilliant, even if the questions tend to be in the form of either a) "Here is an interesting thought I have. Can you confirm for everybody here that it is interesting?" or b) a completely irrelevant or bizarre line of inquiry that gets the conversation nowhere. At a Terry Eagleton lecture last week there were quite a few questions veering towards the second form, yet it was precisely in his answers to these questions that Eagleton's true genius, and his patience, was revealed. I didn't ask him a question, partly because I get nervous in these situations and partly because I'm afraid of asking a question that takes one of the two forms mentioned above. Of course as soon as I left the building I had formulated in my head a question which perhaps would have been worth asking, namely: How does Terry Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus relate to the metaphysically-tinged creeds of the Church? 

Eagleton made two intentionally provocative statements in his lecture. The first was "God does not have genitals." The second was "God is an animal." I wondered about the relation between these statements, since they are essentially contradictory. It seems to me that the creeds provide a way to hold them together, but Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus basically removed metaphysics (and therefore later Christian understandings of Jesus) from the picture. I wondered if that was his intention, or if he thought his reading of the Gospels could be squared with the creeds. Perhaps that line of questioning would have been too confessional for Queen's, which Eagleton memorably described as a "constitutionally godless institution."

Anyway, I bring up Q & A's not only to name drop, but because I listened online to a Q & A after a Miroslav Volf lecture on faith and violence, and something he said has got me thinking, or at least has got me thinking that I need to get thinking. Here is what he said:

There is so much talk about Christian uniqueness, as if uniqueness were a value. But it isn't. It's a fake value. Truth is a value, but not uniqueness. The fact that Christian faith is unique, I'm troubled by this. I want a state of affairs in which Christian faith isn't unique....In heaven it won't be unique. It just will be. Truth. So if we emphasize uniqueness we are interested in difference. And there is a kind of a pride associated with a stress on uniqueness which wants others to be different than we are, wants others to be outside so that we can reel them in....I think that's a mistake.

The reason Volf's words have got me thinking is because they are quite at odds with much of what I have read in the last 5 years, which has been about the distinctiveness or uniqueness of Christianity and its ethics.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Barth's Theological Method

I have been reading Barth for about five years now. My birthday present in 2010 was the Church Dogmatics, which at a special price of $100 may just have been the biggest bargain since 5p Woppa bars. (Church Dogmatics will now set you back $995, and Woppa bars no longer exist.)

The beauty of Barth's billion pages of theological reflection is that, due to his particular way of writing, you can just jump in to any volume at any point, and it will more or less make sense. He is always circling around the same object, looking at it from different angles, emphasising different parts of the whole. This method is captured in a little technique that Barth uses repeatedly. For example, he takes the commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbour" and examines it using different emphases. So...

Thou shalt love thy NEIGHBOUR.

Thou shalt LOVE thy neighbour.

Thou SHALT love thy neighbour.

It is a simple method, homiletical in nature, and it is this simplicity that makes Barth's theology so forceful and so compelling. Barth is said to have summed up his theology with the children's song "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The volumes of Church Dogmatics can almost be understood as different emphases on this sentence.

JESUS love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me this I know, for the BIBLE tells me so.

Jesus loves me this I KNOW, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves ME this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Jesus LOVES me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Breaking the Cycle

Since I first watched The Wire, I have only watched one TV series in its entirety: The Wire. As of yesterday, that is no longer true. I have watched Friday Night Lights. And in its own very different way, it is equally magnificent.

Well, "equally" is pushing it. Season 2 of The Wire is a masterpiece of bold and complex storytelling. Season 2 of FNL is crap. Really, really crap. That it was cut short because of a writers' strike may just have been the show's saving grace. From then on in the show lived up to the standards it set itself in the first season.

Though it went through something of an identity crisis, a run-of-the-mill teen-centric drama this is not. If The Wire is really about Baltimore, FNL is really about small-town Texas. These two places might seem like world's apart, and in many ways they are, but the presence of Michael Jordon (a different one) in both shows hints at a deeper correspondence. The two Americas that David Simon likes to speak of are both on display in FNL, though it must be said that there is an (unrealistic?)optimism in FNL that is utterly absent from The Wire. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, that is more a criticism of the latter than the former.

***Spoiler alert for FNL*** That said, I like to see a certain pessimism in FNL which may or not be intentional. One of the most surprising plots in the show is its (tentative) criticism of the military. It leaves us, to some degree, resentful of a soldier. That is something of a miracle for a series which is set in Texas and which aired on network television. In the final montage, we see one of the high school football stars in military gear, headed off to base camp to begin life as a soldier. The scholarship he presumed upon never materialised. He hadn't thought of anything other than playing football. So he hands his State championship ring over to his sweetheart, gets on a bus, and joins the army. This might be meant as a touching moment, but given what we have witnessed in the previous five seasons I have my doubts. Are we not in fact seeing the emergence of a new Saracen family, destined to end in division, resentment, and death?

There is also the character of Julie Taylor, fictional proof of Shakespeare's comment that good wombs can sometimes bear bad sons or daughters. For all the infectious virtue of her mother and father, she is annoying and immature to the end, evidence that life does not always correspond to our formulae.

Where FNL really triumphs - and in this it also mirrors The Wire - is in its development of what appear initially to be throw-away characters. In one way, the show can be said to find its centre in Billy Riggins and Buddy Garrity. More than the Taylors, they embody Texas, and that is what this is all about.

There are many great scenes, numerous inspirational speeches, and excellent passages of American Football action. The game itself - since it is so scripted - is almost designed to be televised, so when it is depicted on television it is just like watching the real thing. But it's not really the winning or the losing that matters. This is hammered home to us in that wonderful portrayal of the final game. The coin is tossed, a sign that fate (or perhaps destiny) has more of a say than we like to think when it comes to winning and losing. There are, after all, things that we cannot control. Fitting, then, that the final shot of the final game is quarter-back Vince Howard throwing a Hail Mary. We do what we can, and then we pray like hell that it all turns out okay. But it's the doing what we can for which we are responsible. Or as Coach Taylor says, it's in the trying that character is revealed.

If I have a favourite scene, it is one that is of little consequence to the plot, but which captures the heart of the show. A few of the high school football players meet on their respective balconies in a hotel before a game. They don't realise that Coach Taylor is also outside, listening in on what they have to say. A lesser show (or season 2 of this show) would have them saying all kinds of stuff that would create drama for later on. This show just has them talk and joke with each other, with Coach Taylor enjoying the moment.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Trouble With Words

It's not often a sermon makes front page news. But as I glanced at the newspaper section in Tesco this morning, I read of a "firebrand evangelical" in Belfast who labelled Islam "the spawn of the devil." Any publicity is good publicity, right?

I find it hard to know how to respond to this kind of story. I usually like to distance myself from crazy evangelicals and console myself with the reminder that they don't represent "true Christianity." Christianity, after all, is a religion of love and tolerance and acceptance.

Then comes more tired liberal-multicultural speak, the kind that George Bush would have given before the U.S. invaded an Islamic country and killed its men, women, and children: Islam is a religion of peace. It is fundamentalists who give it a bad name. They have co-opted it for political-ideological purposes.

In sum, I am tempted to distance myself from Christian fundamentalists, and to distance Islam from Islamic fundamentalists. All of this tends to be based on the vague notion of "tolerance." The same strategy can be employed by any reasonable secular liberal: Christianity with any "public" or "political" interest is dangerous, but "true Christianity," which is a private matter practised by a collection of pious individuals, is a perfectly acceptable phenomenon with which we can peacefully co-exist.

I think one of the reasons I find it difficult to respond has to do with the nature of language. This is one reason why the media is not a neutral observer reporting the news. The media shapes the way words like "Christian," "evangelical," "Muslim," "political," "religion" and "fundamentalist" are understood. These words carry an enormous amount of rhetoric and emotion, but very little concrete meaning. Much is assumed when one uses these words, but many of these assumptions don't stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, they sometimes distract from what is really going on.

There is a word that appears four or five times in the extract from the sermon that appears in the paper. It is a word that Christians would do well to scrutinise. That word is "Britain." If there is a fundamentalism on display here, it is this word that might give us a clue to its true source.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rollins, Zizek, and Ecclesiology

Slavoj Zizek likes to tell an anecdote about physicist Niels Bohr. It goes like this:

Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it!’
The point of this anecdote for Zizek is its commentary on the nature of ideology: a social structure - say, democracy - works even if none of those members of the society really believes in the ideals of democracy.

Peter Rollins transposes this into an ecclesial context. For Rollins, the Church functions as an ideological structure which, in a sense, believes for the individual so that the individual does not have to believe. This is where Zizek's comments about laughter tracks also comes into play. According to Zizek, the purpose of the laughter track is not to prompt us to laugh, or to accompany our laughs. The laughter track exists as a substitute for our laughter. The laughter tracks laughs so that we don't have to. The Church believes so that the individual does not have to.

Rollins's "insurrectionist" Christianity is an attempt to move away from this ideological ecclesiology. I am sympathetic with this attempt, which I understand to be an extreme and undiluted form of evangelicalism. What Rollins wants is authenticity. It doesn't matter what form that authenticity takes: it could be authentic faith or authentic doubt. What matters is that it is authentic. Christianity as a religion which critiques religion should be about fostering authenticity.

This places a great burden on the individual to be authentic; that is to say, to be an individual. My worry is that individuals were never meant to be as individual as Rollins thinks they should be. At this point Rollins even departs from Slavoj Zizek's "faith." For Zizek it is precisely the Church as institution which interests him. For Rollins, on the other hand, the Church as institution is in tension with authentic Christianity. This is why Icon did "non-membership courses" and "Omega courses," which were designed to free the individual from the clutches of institutionalism.

In being so freed we are free to be ourselves. But are we made to handle this freedom? What Rollins is trying to do is to create a space in which the individual is free, even obliged, to doubt. "To believe is human; to doubt, divine" hangs over his webpage. The reason we do not need the Church to have faith for us when he have lost our faith is that losing faith is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite: doubt, for Rollins, is a cardinal theological virtue, given its paradigmatic expression by Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Rollins - like Zizek - makes much of the verse, but I'm not sure it can carry the weight he attaches to it. The overwhelming testimony of Old and New Testaments is that faith (or "belief") is to be commended, while doubt, in the end, is shown to be unreasonable. "Oh ye of little faith" was not a compliment to the disciples.

Rollins is right that doubt or lack of faith should not be suppressed. It should be given a voice, as it is in the hymn book of the Bible, the Psalms. Where Rollins is wrong, however, is that it is precisely the Church as believing (or faithful) community that can carry these doubts within the context of faith. It can do this because it does not depend on the individual to be always faithful. That the Church has faith even when the individual is at the end of her faith is good news.

In what was a very Hauerwasian moment, the preacher in Everwood said the following: "The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness." One of Hauerwas's students, Chris Huebner, wrote about this very gift in an essay on memory, faith, and Alzheimer's disease. He describes the Church as a place of memory for those who can no longer remember. This is what being a member of the body of Christ is all about.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Sweet Hereafter: A Recommendation

I read today that 18 people have been detained during the investigation of the mining disaster in Turkey. As heartless as it might be to move from this story to a film recommendation, I couldn't but be reminded of The Sweet Hereafter. It is a film about a tragic and fatal accident in a small town, and one man's need to make moral and legal sense of it.

If you haven't seen the film, I can't recommend it enough. It is part of a trio of Atom Egoyan films from the 1990's that are some of my all-time favourites, the other two being Calendar and Exotica. Egoyan seems to have lost his muse of late, but these earlier films, and particularly The Sweet Hereafter, are intelligent, delicate, melancholic and intricate masterpieces. I will let Roger Ebert do my bidding for me:

This is one of the best films of the year, an unflinching lament for the human condition. Yes, it is told out of sequence, but not as a gimmick: In a way, Egoyan has constructed this film in the simplest possible way. It isn't about the beginning and end of the plot, but about the beginning and end of the emotions. In his first scene, the lawyer tells his daughter he doesn't know who he's talking to. In one of his closing scenes, he remembers a time when he did know her. But what did it get him?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Benefits of Far-Sight

Barth, in one sweeping sentence, shows us why the self-consciously postmodern theology of our era will not pass the test of time. Although perhaps this kind of theology does not wish to pass such a "modern" test!

In theology, at least, we must be more far-sighted than to attempt a deliberate co-ordination with temporarily predominant philosophical trends in which we may be caught up, or to allow them to dictate or correct our conceptions.

Of course it should be remembered that Barth wrote this on the brink of his engagement with the existential philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger. Perhaps all those works that show us how Richard Rorty illuminates the thought of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite have a place, after all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hard Grace

This blog has very quickly descended into a venue for me to post snippets of the essays I'm currently working on. "Hasn't it always been that," you say? Like Arsene Wenger, I refuse to comment on speculation.

Since Barth is playing a role in both of my essays at the moment, I'm reading more Barth than I can quote. One of those essays has to do with the relationship between philosophy and theology (which I've made more concrete by examining the hypothetical relationship between Iris Murdoch's philosophical ethics and Karl Barth's theological ethics). Here is what a Barthian must conclude:

The Christian is not distinguished from the non-Christian, nor the theologian from the philosopher, because she has received a grace which the other has not received. The difference between the two, rather, is that one has been awakened to see the grace that encompasses the world, whereas the other remains blind to it. Yet the grace exists for both, and it affects even those who cannot name it.

Barth puts this in other, better, and more succinct terms:

The fact that God is gracious to us does not mean that He becomes soft, but that He remains absolutely hard, that there is no escaping His sovereignty and therefore His purpose for man.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Karl Barth, Hypocrite

What was all that "Nein!" talk about?

Barth is the self-proclaimed opponent of natural theology. Yet in one of the early books of his Church Dogmatics, he talks about a "natural proof of God adduced in world-history." What is this natural proof?

It is the continuing existence of the Jews.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Creeping Death

I've been tasked with providing a theological reading of  Joshua 1-11. Here is apologist William Lane Craig's take on the text:

I won't go into the details of how I read Joshua - in a word, critically - but I will say that I disagree with almost everything that WLC says in these 10 minutes. He ends up defending a view of God that has Him ordering the slaughter of children for the sake of a "greater good." In other words, WLC wants us to believe in a God who engages in child sacrifice. This is a line of interpretation that stems back to Calvin at least, and leads me to believe that something went badly wrong at some point in the church's hermeneutical history.

This lecture from David Bentley Hart (which has an intro that sounds like the theme tune to 'Everwood') goes some way towards explaining that history. If I remember correctly, DBH identifies nominalism - which portrays God as pure, unadulterated will - as the problem.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

God-Breathed: A Proposal

"God-breathed" is a beautiful term often used in ugly ways. For example, those who want to "take Genesis 2-3 literally" say that. given the text God-breathed, it must give us the facts about what really happened at the moment of creation. Since God is truthful, then something that is God-breathed must be truthful, that is to say, factual. Those who deny that Genesis gives us an accurate historical-scientific account of the world's beginning are thus denying the "God-breathedness" of scripture.

As beautiful as the term is, its precise meaning is notoriously difficult to grasp. But can Genesis 2 actually help in this regard? Perhaps being God-breathed is not a sign of scripture's divinity but of its humanity. It is humans, after all, who are said to be "inspired" by God, made alive by God's breath (Gen. 2:7). We are, in a sense, God-breathed. As are other animals. The primary function of God's breath is to make animals alive. Is that also what it means for scripture to be God-breathed? That it is "made alive"?

A reasonably common view of scripture is that it is both divine and human, a sort of literary version of the incarnation. But given the God-breathedness of humans in general, is scripture more like humans in general than Christ in particular?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Whose Wealth Is It Anyway?

Spending most of my days among books means that I am constantly being made aware of all the literature that I am not reading, and that I will never read. I don't like that there are books that I haven't read. So every now and then I'll pick up a book that catches my attention and read some of it. This is what free time looks like for a theology student. Well, that and watching football.

Yesterday it was Jacques Ellul's Money and Power.

The opening two chapters contain two interesting points.

The first is Ellul's critique of the notion of "stewardship," which is an ethic based on God's ownership of the world and his handing over of the things of the world to humans as stewards. I don't think Ellul goes far enough with his critique, but he at least forces us to ask the question: whose wealth do own?

In reality men and women get wealth unfairly; they willingly strip God of it and appropriate it to themselves; they are not stewards. They are unfaithful trustees, and they take care of Satan’s wealth.

"Satan's wealth." What a brilliant phrase. It reminds me of Bill Hicks's rhetoric:

People often ask me where I stand politically. It's not that I disagree with Bush's economic policy or his foreign policy; it's that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.

The second point is something I have thought about for a while. It concerns the tension between the Old and New Testaments on the topic of wealth. According to Ellul,

There is no more apparent radical opposition between the two covenants than the one concerning wealth.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The True Measure of Secularisation

I have devised a fool-proof measure for secularisation levels across Europe. All you have to do is look at the football fixture list, and see how many games are scheduled in the Easter period. The results are as follows:

England, despite Cameron's recent nonsense, comes out looking quite secular. Most of the lower league games are being played on Good Friday at 3pm. Presumably they act as the fixtures that TV producers would like to wash their hands of. Easter Saturday brings in over half the Premier League games, but none of these games are really very alive. West Ham v Crystal Palace? Newcastle v Swansea? They are almost respectfully downbeat. Easter Sunday, however, is yet another Sky Sports Super Sunday. The joy of resurrection can now be celebrated with the weekend's most intriguing fixtures. They can be feasted on one after the other, staring at midday and ending at 6pm. The new liturgy.

By contrast, Serie A has scheduled all its games for Easter Saturday, leaving Italians free to go about their Good Fridays and Easter Sundays in more traditional ways.

It should come as no surprise that France is the most godless country, with the majority of games taking place on Easter Sunday...or just Sunday, to the French. Good Friday also gets a game, although curiously there is nothing scheduled for Easter Saturday. Perhaps that in-between day doesn't have enough iconoclastic potential for the French. Although the fixtures could also be construed as a sort of dramatisation of the Easter story. The one fixture on Friday falls to the ground and dies. Saturday is a non-event. But Sunday! Sunday brings Ligue 1 back to life!

The fixture list for this weekend in the Bundesliga looks exactly like the fixture list for the previous 30 weeks of the Bundesliga. Typical Germans, Alex Ferguson would say. Their league runs like clockwork. A fixture amendment would mean that the system is flawed, but the system is flawless. A sign of secularity, or a sign of German efficiency? It's too hard to tell.

Most surprising to me at least is Spain. Spain, that most Catholic of countries for so many years, has not escaped the fate of other European nations. France, it seems, is contagious. One survey from 10 years ago reveals that only 14% of young people in Spain describe themselves as "religious." But more scientific than such surveys is the fixture schedule for La Liga this weekend. Good Friday sees Atletico Madrid take on Elche. This is especially odd, since La Liga games are almost never on Fridays. Easter Saturday contains only three games, each as exciting as West Ham v Crystal Palace. Easter Sunday then witnesses four games, with one kicking off at 12pm local time.

One other country of note is Scotland. Rather curiously, all of the league games in Scotland, like in Italy, are being played on Easter Saturday. Except for one. Inverness play Aberdeen on Good Friday. Do one of those two have a European engagement next week that I'm unaware of?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bible and Colonialism

What would it mean to read some of the biblical narratives from the point of view of a Canaanite?

That is one of several questions that has emerged in my study of narrative criticism. My supervisor pointed me in the direction of Michael Prior's book The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, which offers a somewhat scathing assessment of both the interpretation of the conquest narratives and the narratives themselves. Prior speaks of "racist, xenophobic, and militaristic" traditions within Israel's scripture that, unsurprisingly, lead to racist, xenophobic, and militaristic applications by later readers. Due to the problematic nature of these traditions - which for Prior have no historical merit, but reflect perhaps a post-exilic attempt to reconstitute national and religious identity - it is up to civilised, morally sensitive readers to subject some portions of the Bible to ethical critique.

There are numerous problems with Prior's book, not least its theological and moral shallowness. But it nevertheless addresses a topic in need of addressing. If scripture as the norma normans non normata (the unnormed norm of norms) cannot be subject to "moral critique," then what must give way - the understanding of scripture, or the moral critique? By what "norm" might scripture be tested against? Prior's "civilised" individual? Other competing traditions in scripture? Prior gives a couple of examples of scripture being used as a form of encouragement for both colonizers and those colonized. (Interestingly, Noah actually picks up on this phenomenon, with the good character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes creation care, and the bad character emphasising that part of the oral tradition that promotes human dominion.)

The church, it should be noted, has undertaken a de facto moral critique of scripture by leaving morally dubious passages out of the lectionary. Even those churches that eschew a lectionary tend to steer clear of the difficult passages when they prepare their preaching calendars. Most Christians, then, are semi-Marcionites in practice if not in theory. The passages are there, and unlike Marcion we will not remove them, but we will do our best to ignore them into theological irrelevance.

Prior notices this pick and choose mentality among liberation theologians. The Exodus narrative is taken to be paradigmatic for the likes of Gutierrez. Here God's action on behalf of the oppressed is displayed. But Prior asks: what about the Eisodus? That is to say, what about the violent movement from Egypt and into the territory of another people? The Exodus paved the way for a conquest, with Canaanites on the receiving end. Surely South Americans, while identifying with the experience of Israelites in one movement of the narrative, will identify more with the experience of the Canaanites in the next? Where, morally speaking, does that leave ancient Israel?

If only I was well acquainted with a Latin American who could give me the answers I seek...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Meant to Preach

NOAH FEATURETTE with Quotes from Cooke Pictures on Vimeo.

Here are some people talking about Noah. I disagree with all of them, but I disagree with Karen Covell, founder of "Hollywood Prayer Network", the most. She says:

Movies aren't meant to preach. Movies aren't sermons.

First, she (implicitly) propagates the tired, old trope that sermons are bad. A bad sermon is bad. A good sermon is spine-tinglingly good. A good sermon may be much rarer than a bad sermon, but it is still a sermon. It is still preaching.

Second, movies are meant to preach! Cinema, for better or worse, has always been a medium that conveys a message. To be sure, the stories are stories, and should not be reduced to a few didactic point. But the stories are ideological all the way down. The question is therefore not whether a film is "preachy" or not. The question is how and what the film preaches.

In the end, Covell's statement actually contradicts the agenda of HPN, which speaks of Hollywood as "the world's most influential mission field." That's a bonkers description, of course, but it does at least acknowledge the reality that films, just like sermons, are intended to influence.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Noah: A Review

One of the first films I remember watching was a biblical epic. It was The Ten Commandments, and it was around four days long. For some reason, I was able to watch it again and again and again. Probably because Moses was a hero of mine. I would always get my dad to read the Moses story from the children's story bible just one more time. I couldn't get enough of it. I watched The Ten Commandments again a few years ago, and it remains the quintessential biblical epic, containing one of the finest pieces of narration committed to the big screen:

Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God's great purpose, until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker's hand.

All of this is by way of saying that I approached Noah with some anticipation. Darren Aronofsky has artistic credibility, so I expected an intelligent, imaginative, and engaging rendering of the biblical story. I got the other rendering, and was bitterly disappointed, almost from the get go.

I wasn't disappointed because Noah didn't stick to the biblical account of the story. If it had done so, the film would have been over in fifteen minutes. (Though, with hindsight, that might not have been such a bad thing.) Furthermore, the biblical story - and I say this with all due deference - isn't particularly interesting. If there is an interesting dimension to it, it is the proper theological dimension. The story begins with a God who "repents." That in itself might have made for an interesting theme to explore. Indeed, it would have created a beautiful, poetic irony. Those Christians who denounce the film for not being true to the biblical text would perhaps be left uncomfortable if confronted by the text's own theology on a big screen. We actually had one of these Christians in our screening. How do I know? Because as the credits rolled, a voice from the back told us that "This is not a true representation of the Bible. If you want the truth, read Genesis 5 and 6." "Get a life," was one of the replies. My thought was that that was the least of the films problems. But get a life works, too.

Anyway, I can forgive Aronofsky for not focussing on the character of God, even if God is the most interesting character in the Noah narrative. Or at least I could have forgiven him if he gave us some interesting humans. That he didn't is my biggest criticism. I'll admit, he came close a couple of times. There is an Augustinian tension between sin and grace that plays out in the life of Noah, but the sin never really gets concrete form (apart from a few stock villains) and therefore the grace amounts to little more than sentimentality. Ethically/existentially/spiritually [delete as appropriate] it is profoundly shallow. The other characters aren't even worth talking about, because they are not really characters at all. They are plot devices, not people.

The film does raise some good questions, but it has no idea how to answer them. The vision of the film is blurred, lacking the conviction of another recent biblical epic, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. One scene in Noah was like the creation sequence of ToL  in fast forward, and therefore lacked any of its breadth or majesty. In fact, it was probably closer to the opening of The Big Bang Theory, minus the Barenaked Ladies. As far as criticism goes, it doesn't get much worse than that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sources of the Secular

John Milbank, with typical diffidence, says that there are no secular sources for proper ethical thinking. Hobbs tries to employ Plato for secular ends, but Milbank is having none of it.

Listen to these "public" philosophers (as with "social" justice, is there any other kind?) talk Plato and politics below:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

True Detective Revisited

Those planning to watch True Detective may want to stop reading now, although I will speak in the broadest terms possible and very briefly at that.

I have likened True Detective to several films and shows: The Wire, Heat, and Se7en. Okay, three films/shows. But I missed one. The similarities were there from the very beginning, but like a true detective I failed to spot the clue that was right under my nose.

True Detective is televisions answer to The Tree of Life, at least on a metaphysical level. Of course the visions of these two pieces of art are, at times, miles apart, as well as the nuts and bolts of the respective the extent that The Tree of Life has a plot. Yet even these dissimilarities produce interesting juxtapositions. For example, the tree in Malick's film is a sign of growth, of reaching towards the heavens, of the reception of light. The tree in True Detective is a place of death, a place were the flames of hell have scorched the earth. All this is in fact illustrated in the very first scene.

But more than these two works having trees in them, it is Rust Cohle that provides the real point of contact. Cohle speaks like he sneaked his way into a Malick script, but instead of gushing about the glory that surrounds us, the light that shines through all things, he has scribbled out Malick's doxological flourishes and replaced them with what he himself calls "philosophical pessimism." If Malick is Heideggerian, Pizzolatto (the writer of True Detective) is self-consciously Nietzschean. Or at least Cohle is.

As I noted already, the stories told by Malick and Pizzolatto go in completely different directions. Yet there is one crucial narrative strand that makes seeing them together an entirely justifiable and fruitful endeavour. In True Detective, we learn very quickly one of the reasons behind Cohle's bleak outlook: his daughter died when she was four. Indeed, the day that kicks off this 17-year case is the anniversary of his daughter's death. The same narrative strand runs through The Tree of Life. Much of what we see occurs because Jack O'Brien (JOB) is meditating on his past on the day of his dead brother's anniversary.

The questions that undergird these works are therefore remarkably similar: How do humans deal with tragedy, with unbearable loss? What is the true nature of a world in which tragedies like this happen? And what story or stories do we tell ourselves to make sense of the whole?

You will be hard pressed to find more honest and compelling answers to these questions than those offered by The Tree of Life and True Detective. I say answers; what we get instead are poetic visions that linger on in the lives of anyone willing to do what is almost impossible in this age of ours: to contemplate.