Monday, January 20, 2014

Failure to Recognise

The whole Protestant emphasis on the authority of scripture was vitiated by the failure to recognise the existence within scripture of elements which pointed in a Catholic direction. 
- James Barr, Holy Scripture

A perceptive quote from a compelling book.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Re-intellectualising Church

I was talking to someone recently about the state of Sunday School. She teaches Sunday School in a large church, where the word from the top down is "fun". She prepares questions for the children but worries that they are too hard, given the usual low standards.

Being the unreasonable, joyless man that I am, I suggested that far from making the questions a little easier, these children should be learning ancient Greek and Hebrew. An exaggeration, perhaps, but the point is that children are very eager and capable learners. In Monday-Friday School they are learning abstract mathematical concepts, foreign languages, and various forms of art. What are they learning on Sunday? Sadly, they are learning that what they learn from Monday-Friday is the stuff of real life, whereas Sunday is a bit of fun to break up the monotony. The rich tradition that is Christianity is relegated to the level of a cartoon, and not one of the goods ones, either. The tradition in which they partake is evacuated of its intellectual and artistic depths, which is why so many who grow up in church are actually shielded from all that the Church has to offer. They may even end up walking away from a faith that they never knew in the first place.

I am not a qualified educator of children. I am an idealist who thinks that every child is dying to explore that mystery within a mystery that is the trinity, and would jump at the chance to draw some Hebrew letters. That's obviously not true. But I do think that children in the church deserve better than what they get. They deserved better than what I gave them when I was a Sunday School teacher. These children come to Jesus week in week out, and we let them leave with a cup of juice and a biscuit. We do the best we can, or the best we're allowed, and in the end we probably think it doesn't matter too much.

Problems in the church are usually treated as adult problems, with solutions aimed exclusively at adults by other adults. Children are, by and large, left out of the picture entirely. We'll worry about them when they grow up and become "youths" or "young adults" (age categories invented by the church?) who will either disappear despite our best intentions or who will stay around because of our cunning marketing campaigns addressed at these demographics (which only exacerbate the problems). But as The Wire so expertly showed in its fourth season, these malfunctioning adults were once children, training for the street in the environs of the school. Sunday School is the chance to offer training for a different world, to equip and enrich humans of a very particular sort. It is not a break from serious learning, but an opportunity to understand the true end of all learning. If adults are turning up to a church service without any awareness of being disciples who are eager to learn something, it is probably because they have been turning up for church like that since they were kids...and because the preaching is crap. But also the former.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

12 Years a Slave

I watched 12 Years a Slave this week, and left the cinema unsure of what to make of it. I have seen "better" (whatever that means) films this week - The Hunt and No - but a film chronicling the life of a slave has a weight to it that few films can touch. In a lecture that can be partly viewed on YouTube, Stanley Hauerwas is keen for Americans to confront slavery as a "wrong so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right." Seeing this wrong played out on screen is perhaps one gesture towards truthful remembrance.

One reason that film left me confused is that it didn't satisfy my expectations. Whether these were generated by the film itself or were my own creations I'm not sure. Probably the latter. But I wanted a story about the triumph of evil over good, of the virtue of humanity over its vices. What I got was nothing of the sort. The lead character is no hero. He is no paragon of virtue in the face of vice. My reading of the film is that slavery corrupted not only those on the "oppressor" side of it but also those on the "oppressed" side. This isn't to say that the oppressed ended up just as bad or just as guilty as their oppressors. Perish the thought. But the sight of Solomon Northup whipping the flesh off of a fellow slave tied to a wooden pole signifies the possibility of shared identity: the slave becomes - unwillingly and remorsefully - the master. Indeed that is the true evil of these "masters": it is not contained within their own persons, but spreads like a plague throughout the environment.

*spoiler alert*
I was expecting redemption. I found only further tragedy, and those words of Stanley Hauerwas coming back to mind: Slavery is "a wrong so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right." Solomon Northup does eventually get to go home. He leaves the plantation on a horse and cart, with the woman he had previously whipped begging him to take her with him, or perhaps begging him to stay. He does neither. He is, after all, neither master nor slave, but a "free man" from the north, and to the north he returns. Even in this moment of "redemption," there still exists a deep pathos. This is why it makes perfect sense that upon his return home Northup asks his family for forgiveness. Even though he was a victim, he knows that he too needs it. (Of course this request could be heard as him asking for forgiveness for not being around for the last 12 years, for missing his daughter's wedding and his grandson's birth, but that's a sentimental scenario that I'd prefer to ignore.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Black Gold

I don't drink coffee. I don't like the taste. When a group goes out for coffee, I'm the kid ordering hot chocolate while the adults drink their mochas and cappuccinos and what have you.

Thankfully, you don't have to enjoy coffee to appreciate Black Gold, a 2006 documentary by Marc and Nick Francis. As the title indicates, coffee is big business these days. It's a commodity with a global market, yet, as the film shows, it is one which is produced in some of the world's most impoverished communities. The reason for this is given early on by Tadesse Meskela, who heads up a co-operative in Ethiopia intent on receiving fair prices for the coffee produced by farmers in the region. He explains that a kilo of coffee will generate $230 in the Western world. This same kilo is bought from these farmers for around $0.23. As David Brent would say, that's...profit.

There are larger themes beneath the surface of these figures. One of the opening scenes in the film shows sacks of coffee sitting in an African warehouse. The closing scene in the film shows sacks of wheat with "U.S. Aid" printed in big red and blue letters, flooding into the shores of east Africa. This is a powerful juxtaposition. The aid may be necessary, but as the scene set at the World Trade Organisation talks demonstrates, it need not be necessary. It is made necessary by Western greed, functioning as a sort of tax paid to the countries whose land and resources are ravished by the hand that feeds it. We take and take, a give back a tiny portion of what we don't need. Since everyone loves a good dig in the direction of Starbucks, here is Meskela's take on the matter:

Starbucks may help bring clear water for one community but this does not solve the problem. In 2005, Starbucks' aid to the third world was $1.5m. We don't want this kind of support, we just want a better price. They make huge profits; giving us just one payment of money does not help.

What can we as people who buy coffee do? Do we boycott Starbucks and start buying some fair trade Ethiopian coffee? That stuff's pretty expensive. The $230 that a kilo of coffee sells for and the $0.23 that a kilo of coffee is bought for probably reflects a double injustice: the coffee is not being bought at a fair price, but it is also not being sold at a fair price. Company's must have their enormous profits. It is hard to see what can be changed until that desire for surplus is first changed. Nevertheless, the film ends with a remarkable statistic:

If Africa's share of world trade increased by one percentage point it would generate a further $70 billion a year - five times the amount the continent now receives in aid.

The review of this film in the New York times asks "Who wouldn't want that?" The answer, unfortunately, is more people than we might think.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bonjour Badiou

On the Newstalk website there is an interview with the author of a book called There is No God: Atheists in America. It’s not a particularly good interview (for which I’d lay the blame on the interviewee rather than the interviewer), but it brings to mind Hauerwas’s claim that America has been unable to produce interesting atheists, mainly because Americans don’t believe in a particularly interesting God.

Disbelief in Europe can take a very different form. Slavoj Zizek has recently written about both the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ, but not in the way that the 19th century rationalist Richard Dawkins might write about them. Instead of battling against these Christian figures, Zizek aims to incorporate them into his own philosophy. Zizek's Jesus - like anyone's Jesus, really - is a reflection of his best self, so in Zizek's case that means we get a Jesus who tells his fellow revolutionaries to sell their coats and use money to buy swords in preparation for a violent uprising against the powers that be.

Along this strange path that leads from Jesus and Paul to atheism he is accompanied by Alain Badiou, whose book Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism I’ve been reading over Christmas. Reading a book by an atheist may seem like risky business for some Christians. What has Paris to do with Grand Rapids? The philosophy faculty with the bible college? Tertullian would appear to warn us against engaging with the dangerous ideas of “the enemy”. Yet it was Tertullian himself who declared the dangerous philosopher of his time, Seneca, to be a thinker who often sounds like “one of our own”. Tertullian’s rhetoric should not disguise his own practice of reading and quoting from (both disapprovingly and approvingly) the philosophy of his time. In short, one way to love those outside of the church is to read their books.

It is one thing reading Badiou’s book; it is another thing understanding it, however. When he writes things that go something like “the evental nature of truth entails a resurgence of subjectivity that causes a rupture in the truth procedure” I get confused and angry. He is using a language to which I am not privy. It is not unlike reading Barth for the first time, as you struggle to relate what you are reading to what is being written about.

Yet just as a small section of Barth’s billion pages of fine print can leap from a long paragraph and hammer you in the gut, so too can Badiou be occasionally and forcefully understood. Moreover, some of his theology [?] at these points of impact strike a very Barthian note. For example, he writes:

Paul has not been converted by representatives of “the Church”; he has not been won over. He has not been presented with the gospel. Clearly, the encounter on the road mimics the founding event. Just as the Resurrection remains totally incalculable and it is from there that one must begin, Paul's faith is that from which he begins as a subject, and nothing leads up to it. The event – “it happened,” purely and simply, in the anonymity of a road – is the subjective sign of the event proper that is the Resurrection of Christ (p17).

The difference between Badiou and Barth is that for Badiou the Resurrection is a fable, and the Good News that Paul declares holds no interest for him. In the end, Badiou’s theology is more Bultmannian than Barthian, as he seeks to extract the truth in Paul from the mythological framework in which it is contained. Paul would surely disapprove of this gesture, would he not? After all, if the Resurrection that he declares turns out to be a fable, Paul himself confesses that he and his fellow church members are to be pitied as the most foolish of humans. Badiou’s book is an attempt to salvage Paul from the wreckage of the Gospel-fable that this "poet-thinker of the event" mistakenly believed. In effect, Badiou says to Paul, “Jesus hasn’t been raised, but that doesn’t mean that your work was in vain.” Flawed as this perspective may be, there is enough insight in Badiou’s book for Christians to be able to say back to him, “Jesus has been raised, but that doesn’t mean your work is in vain.”